There is much discussion about reducing the working week in business communities and governments worldwide. Campaigners have called for years to bring in the four-day week, arguing that the current working week was introduced more than a century ago and needs to be reconsidered for today’s world.
What is the short working week or four-day workweek?
The idea behind the shorter work week is to give workers more time for leisure or home life. A three-day weekend may sound like a fantastic idea, but business owners, governments and employees all have concerns.
Business owners worry about the bottom line, and employees are uneasy about the possibility of reducing pay and work benefits. Nevertheless, the idea has been picked up by enough businesses to trial it, perhaps the most notable being Microsoft Japan in 2019.
The pandemic has encouraged us to explore ways to establish a more productive work environment and enable workers to enjoy an improved work-life balance. Businesses and campaigners consider that a shorter work week could be a major step towards achieving this.
How do companies know if it will work for them?
There are many trials taking place, with studies showing numerous advantages.
Benefits to employers
- Increased sales and productivity: Microsoft Japan closed on Fridays during August 2019, and their output per employee increased by 39.5% compared to August 2018.
- Reduced employee burnout: Staff taking fewer sick days.
- Improved employee retention: Employees who experience job satisfaction are more loyal to a company.
- Lower operating costs: A government trial in Utah, U.S.A., showed government offices saved US$1.8 million in energy costs in the first ten months of a shortened working week.
Benefits to employees
- A better work-life balance: This enhances well-being by promoting improved mental and physical health.
- Personal development: It allows extra time for training. Shinogi (a Japanese pharmaceutical company) will offer a four-day working week to workers wanting to learn new skills as the company moves into new business areas.
- Reduced costs: Lower commuting expenses and less expenditure on coffees and lunches.
- The three-day weekend: Allows workers to spend time with friends, family and pets, and to spend more time on their hobbies and interests. Elephant Ventures (a software company) initiated the four-day week in order to mitigate the pressures of the pandemic on workers.
- An extra day off: Enables employees to make appointments (medical, administrative, financial, etc.) that are otherwise difficult to incorporate into a work schedule.
Some disadvantages directly result from a shorter week, whereas the lack of data can create the perception of negatives.
- Reduced customer satisfaction: If customers can’t reach a business, they can get frustrated. Online technology could, in time, address this issue.
- Fear of lower productivity: This remains a concern in some industries despite trials showing the opposite. They believe the number and size of trials are too small or not applicable to their business.
- Shorter training for medical professionals: Doctors are concerned as they believe on the job training will be cut, patients will not receive continuity of treatment, and an increase in handovers could result in errors.
- Fear of reduced pay and/or holiday allowance: Many employees who are fearful of reduced pay and holiday allowances would prefer to opt for the current five-day work week rather than taking a pay cut.
- Not suitable for everyone: A new way of working may not be suitable for everyone. Employees need to be focused on good time management and prioritize effectively.
- Potentially tougher on lower-paid workers: Some consider it elitist as many lower-paid workers need to work more hours to make ends meet.
- Reduced opportunities for social contact: Some workers enjoy the social aspect of work and see work as an escape from lonely or unhappy home lives.
In Utah, U.S.A., government offices conducted a ten-month trial on a four-day week. Estimates showed it could achieve a reduction of 1200 metric tons of CO2 a year when taking commuting into account.
Other estimates in the U.K. concluded that, by introducing a four-day week, commuting alone could save 127 million tons of CO2 over a year, and there would be 27 million fewer car journeys. People would have time to make more positive environmental decisions, such as cooking from scratch instead of eating ready meals.
Studies have shown that a shorter working week will benefit gender equality dramatically. The gender pay gap often increases when women have children and need time off. Referred to as the ‘motherhood penalty’, women’s pay is 33% lower by the time their child is 12 years old, as detailed by the U.K.’s Institute for Fiscal Studies.
The Wellcome Trust, when they proposed moving to a four-day week, suggested that it would have a profound effect on equality. Women would have a day off a week to look after children, as would the father, thus keeping them equal with colleagues.
Studies carried out at Stanford University also concluded that the shorter working week could only positively affect gender equality by levelling up all workers.
Is it a new trend?
A shorter working week is not a radical idea. In 1890, US workers in the manufacturing industry worked on average 100 hours. Today, the number has dramatically reduced to 40 hours a week. The concept of a 32-hour work week is not as novel as first thought.
In 1908, a mill in New England reduced the working week to five days to accommodate employees’ different religious beliefs. Jewish workers observed the Saturday sabbath and made up their hours on Sunday, offending some Christian workers. The mill granted a two-day weekend which proved to be a success, and other industries followed suit.
Henry Ford implemented a 40-hour working week in 1926, which satisfied workers and helped the economy as workers had time to spend their earnings.
Boots the Chemist reduced the work week in their factories in 1934, after studies showed it would reduce staff absenteeism and positively affect productivity.
So, will the short work week be the new trend in companies? Certainly, the current consensus is that the working week needs reform. A shorter working week is just one of the changes under consideration (others include flexi-time, compressed week, reduced hours over the same number of days and hybrid working). Whatever happens, it looks like change of one kind or another is on the horizon.