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A critique of the four-day week

Business Services

‘Eight Hours’ Labour, Eight Hours’ Recreation, Eight Hours’ Rest’

The quote above is famously that of Robert Owen, an 18th century labour rights activist. At the time, he was advocating for the right of workers to shorter working hours; the average post-Industrial Revolution working week was 100 hours split across six agonising days.

Things are undoubtedly better now, with the average person in the UK working eight hours a day, but it now takes us an average of 54 minutes to commute to our place of work. This means we still spend over c.83% of our Mondays-Fridays at work or getting there.

Our productivity is low and stress at an all-time high, families are under pressure, and some figures are proposing a shorter working week as a solution to the issue.

But is a 40-hour working week a prerequisite for business success? Recently, whether through major political party endorsement or big-tech backing, the idea of the four-day, 32-hour week has has been gaining cultural traction.

Why do we work 40-hour weeks?

The full history of the working week is as long and unfulfilling as a 12-hour shift at work, so here’s a (fairly) brief summary:

Before the advent of agriculture, Homo Sapiens didn’t ‘work’ per se, but performed tasks during their days that would help ensure the survival of their family and wider tribe, such as hunting, foraging, and shelter building. While this may seem time consuming to modern-day readers, research suggests that even the most prolific hunters only spent around 34 hours a week ‘working’; hunter gatherers appear to have had rich social lives and cultures outside of resource gathering. Then, some 10,000 years ago, a seed sprouted in a field somewhere that changed the world.

The first agricultural revolution came and, for the first time in history, people around the world started to own land and produce their own means of subsistence and income. This newfound abundance of food and money to be made came at a price, however, as people now found themselves tied to one geography and a single job for their entire lives; tending to their fields and raising their animals all day, every day. For the common person, this was the way of life for most of recorded history.

Then came the second seismic shift in the working day: The Industrial Revolution. Large factories and the streamlining of the assembly process led to a huge influx of year-round job opportunities – one that previously season-tied farmers leapt at. With all this opportunity, again, came a price: some of the longest working hours in history. It was commonplace to work 16 hours a day, six days a week during this period, but more people were pulled out of poverty and into work than ever before.

In 1810, Robert Owen put into place a 10-hour workday at his mills in Scotland but, still unconvinced and decades ahead of his time, he later shortened it to eight hours. By the end of the 18th century, eight-hour workdays were becoming more and more common across the Western world. Then, in the late 1940s, Henry Ford started experimenting with 40-hour weeks. His results showed a considerable increase in productivity and staff happiness and so, as many companies followed suit, the 40-hour week became the new normal for labour workers all around the world.

So, what now?

It has now been over 60 years since the standardisation of the 40-hour working week and it’s still very much the norm. One might have expected the downward trend in working hours over the last 200 years to continue up to the present day, but the problem proves more complex in actuality.

Productivity issues aside, many companies need to stay open eight to nine hours a day, five days a week to keep in contact with business partners and customers. This is a catch 22 issue; if all companies switched to four-day working weeks it wouldn’t be a problem, but companies are unlikely to make the switch unless all their partners and competitors follow suit. This suggests the need for a society-wide change in the way we think about the working week, and that is no small ask.

Furthermore, the world has changed beyond recognition since the 50s. With mobile phones, laptops, and widely available 4G (and soon 5G), we are always online and always contactable. This has made ‘working hours’ a much looser term, as workers reply to emails, call clients, and arrange meetings outside of contracted office hours. Accounting for these practices would be difficult in a shorter week, and a 20% reduction of time spent in the office could result in a loss of potential leads, clients, and business opportunities.

It is also worth noting that previous campaigns for a shorter working week, such as those seen in post-Industrial Britain, were made during a time where the nature of the work was a lot more dangerous and unpleasant than it is now. Although still present, only c.6% of workers in the UK today report working ‘process plant and machine operative’ jobs, while c.66% work in what would be considered ‘white collar jobs’, such as professional, management, and technical roles, with a further c.17% made up of hospitality, care, and customer service style jobs. This means that the overwhelming majority of workers in the UK now work in fairly non-taxing conditions, with a variety of rights afforded to them such as annual leave, sick pay, and other company benefits. This is a far cry from the setting of post-Industrial Revolution work and brings into question the need for a shorter week.

But is a five-day week needed to maintain productivity? Speaking on the issue, Gemma Godfrey, Chief Executive of investment management company, Moola, points out that workers in Germany could stop working every Thursday and still remain more productive than the UK. Although we work some of the longest hours in Europe, the UK still trails fair behind most of our European neighbours in terms of productivity.

Companies are already seeing the benefits of the switch

Microsoft recently announced the results of its ‘Work-Life Choice Challenge” that it trialled on its Japanese subsidiary during August 2019. Japan works some of the longest hours in the world, so the experiment is especially poignant for being carried out here. The programme saw the company closing every Friday for five weeks, leaving workers with a three-day weekend every week. The company also placed a 30-minute limit on meetings and encouraged remote working. Cutting time spent at work by 20% encouraged workers to re-evaluate their processes and maximise the efficiency of their day; utilising technology to enable video conferences and remote working went a long way to facilitate this.

Microsoft saw a 40% increase in productivity over the period, as well as increased levels of staff happiness and decreased levels of staff absence. The longevity and reliability of the data is questionable, however, as the test period was only five weeks – not nearly long enough to assess the long-term effects of the change. What is key, though, is that productivity didn’t drop – which is surely the primary fear of any employer considering the change. Also notable is the significant drop in energy and materials used as a direct result of the office being closed for 20% of its normal operating time.

Other notable examples of companies adopting a four-day week are Pursuit Marketing in Glasgow – which saw a comparable 30% long-term boost in productivity after the switch – and Normally, a data product service design studio in London, which adopted the four-day week and saw no drop in productivity while still retaining competitive salary rates. Both companies praise the change for both its positive effect on the happiness and well-being of employees and the increase it caused in staff retention and productivity.

Also worth noting is the fact every incentive has its shelf life. Give an employee a pay rise and, after a brief uplift in reported happiness, it becomes the new normal and satisfaction levels plateau again. The same could be the case with a four-day working week. Although initial spikes in productivity are commonly reported, productivity levels do tend to even out after a longer period. There simply isn’t enough evidence yet to assess whether the long-term effects are worth pursuing or not.

Is a four-day right for your business?

This is something that only a business owner can answer themselves. While there is a lot of information out there on the subject, ultimately it comes down to the internal relationships and processes of a business and how these will be affected by the change.

Successful businesses will adopt the most appropriate working structure, attract and retain the best talent – meaning that, ultimately, the free market will drive change.

An experiment that involved reducing the workweek by one day led to a 40% boost in productivity in a Microsoft subsidiary in Japan, the technology giant announced last week

By Rebecca Garland on 08/11/2019