A post-Covid-19 look at the four-day working week

Reigniting once again the debate surrounding the four-day working week, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern recently said in an interview, “I’ve heard lots of people suggesting we should have a four-day week… Ultimately, that really sits between employers and employees”.

Given the time we’re living in, I think this is one of the most measured takes from a person in power to date.

The world of May 2020 is very different to the one we left behind in 2019. Many of us haven’t been to our physical place of work for weeks, we’ve gone without seeing loved ones, and McDonald’s has left a patty-shaped hole in the hearts of many with its temporary closure. Its impact on health aside, Covid-19 has really shaken up the status quo of every-day life in a myriad of interesting ways.

Chief among them primarily concerns the professional services and service industries. Remote working was previously an emerging trend, pioneered by some companies, but mainly it involved part time office work coupled with part time home working. The pandemic has unwittingly brought along with it an opportunity – though they’ve no choice in the matter – for firms to see how full-time remote working affects their employees.

With it comes a series of perks: reduced commuter traffic on the roads, less pollution; subsequently less time spent commuting, improved quality of life; and less money spent on water and electric bills in offices. The solution works well for some, but evidently less well for others. For those lucky enough to have a stable internet connection and enough desk space to work, life working from home must surely be fairly easy. For those less fortunate, it must be a frustrating and unproductive experience.

And here we are brought back to the initial sentiment given by Ms. Ardern, “Ultimately, that really sits between employers and employees”. Although the same purported benefits of the four-day working week remain – better work-life balance, happier staff, and reduced environmental impact of commuting and office running – the answer to whether it is an appropriate strategy to take should be found between employers and employees, not forced by the state.

Covid-19 has forced a level of flexibility upon many businesses that would never have considered change previously, for good or bad. One benefit that the lockdown has brought with it, however, might be a shift in the paradigm of the workplace. The ultimate stress test has proven that different ways of working can and do benefit employer and employee alike; what this means for individual companies is for them to work out.

The idea has already gained traction in Australia and America, highlighting a widespread interest in new ways of organising work. Ultimately, Ardern was suggesting the end of lockdown might present organisations with a chance to do things differently.

By Rebecca Garland on 29/05/2020