Why working four days a week should be the new norm

Geir Darge · 02 Oct

Shaving a day off the working week sounds like a playground fantasy when you first look at it: paying workers the same wage for quantifiably less time, doesn’t seem like a feasible policy.

And yet the 4-day week has been making headline again. Now the labour union TUC, in their 150th anniversary year, have set their sights on achieving a 32-hour week by the end of this century.

Which begs the question, is this a fantasy or the future? 

The fact of the matter is, changes to our working pattern have been bubbling beneath the surface for some time. The proliferation of a “gig” economy, the rising dominance of service and retail and the digitalisation of many workplaces are tearing at the seams of our rigid nine-to-five.

Why then does the idea of working a 4-day week still hold such gravity in the working world? Is it perhaps time to start reforming labour practices that have existed for over 100 years? The deeper you probe into the very nature of working in a 21st-century environment, the more a 4-day week presents itself as the natural evolution.

The working week’s evolution

To understand the context for the changes we are now facing, it’s worth looking back at a similar situation, almost exactly 200 years ago.

The working week has not always been the 8-hour day that populates most professional workplace now. Even the most basic legislation around working hours didn’t come into existence until the mid-industrial revolution.  Before this, labourers were committed unthinkably long days (think Four Yorkshiremen levels of misery) and weren’t even paid a wage in legal tender. Instead were given “tokens” to spend in their employer’s “truck shop”.

The first serious suggestion of what we’d recognise as a normal working day was formulated in 1810 by Robert Owen, a factory owner in New Lanark Scotland. The business magnate who had already reduced his own workers hours to 10.5 a day, believed that the perfect balance for labour was: “8 hours work, 8 hours recreation, 8 hours rest”.

Push-back is progress

Owen’s views on worker’s rights made him a deeply unpopular figure with his factory shareholders and indeed with the wider business community. The arguments made against him feel fairly familiar: making such allowances would result in a catastrophic loss in profit, that as a model, it was unsustainable.

Yet, in improving worker’s right and conditions, New Lanark became a paragon of modern labour practices. The factory rose to global fame and was visited by social reformers, industrialists and even monarchs from around the world. Despite widespread criticism, what visitors found was a highly productive, engaged and happy workforce, without any damage to the profits, our output.

What’s the significance of New Lanark, aside from it being an early pioneer of the 8-hour working day? Well in many ways it serves as a framework for how change is brought about when it comes to employment practices. Success in isolated scenarios will set off a gradual but incremental reordering of the status quo.

Today’s pioneers

Fast forward to 21st century and the point of conflict might have changed but the players remain the same: the status quo vs. a pioneering spirit. However, today the debate is on flexible working and isn’t as localised or as daring as it was in the Victorian Era. Proponents of the four-day working week are scattered across the globe, from Germany to North America.

However, for this sake of specificity, we’ll focus on the New Zealand firm, Perpetual Guardian.

The trial took 240 staff and for a period of two months, implemented a four-day work week, all the while leaving salaries untouched. The employees, who were carefully monitored by a team of academics, were also brought into the decision-making process; helping to devise a structure to this time frame that would have the littlest impact on day-to-day tasks.

Results have been much like New Lanark, 200 years ago. The academics involved have deemed it an “unmitigated success”, finding that there was a universal improvement in job and life satisfaction. After the trial period, 78% of employees (compared with only 54% previously) felt they had a good work-life balance.

This isn’t so surprising in itself, given the nature of the experiment but the impact went much further.  There was a 7% drop in stress across those surveyed, while a 5% boost in overall life satisfaction was also reported. Most surprisingly there was an overall boost in motivation and commitment to their jobs.

Why did it work?

Theoretically, the result above shouldn’t have happened. The idea that employees will do more in less time completely counter-intuitive and doesn’t stand up to reason.

Well, it has a lot to do with Bullshit Jobs.

To clarify, David Graeber of the LSE recently published a book called Bullshit Jobs that deals with the growth in what the anthropologist refers to as “pointless jobs”. Having spent time talking to a broad spectrum of workers, the academic noticed a strange trend that had appeared over the last two decades:  many people had no idea why they were actually employed. There was a prevailing sense that the job they were doing didn’t fully exist.

Graeber’s conclusion is that as there is no obvious economic justification, then the only other explanation is political.

The argument is compelling, but it slightly overextends itself. The big here is that if there’s isn't an economic benefit of employing people, then why would a world run by accountants, shareholders and corporate interest, ever allow for it to happen?

Graeber pretty much answers this himself. Corporate Law, Personal Assistance, Telemarketing, etc. these are not pointless careers. In fact, in many cases, they are vital to a business. What is required of people however, has changed due to the light-speed advances in technology.

The fifteen-hour week

 The premise that the book starts on is that John Manyard Keynes in 1930 published a paper predicting that by the turn of (this) century, technology would have advanced to such a point that humans in industrial powers would only need to work 15-hour weeks.

Now the rate of technological advancement has in many ways surpassed even the most audacious science fiction: information is instantly available, connectivity has no boundaries and the processing capacity of our phone is larger than that of most sophisticated computers of 40 years ago.

In fact, technology has absorbed 90% of all jobs humans used to. It’s easy to focus on the manual side of this development, however it has changed to the way we think and how we approach issues. We live in an instant world now, where it’s rude to leave an email response longer than a day, where location is irrelevant, where information is as available as oxygen. 

Yet we all still work 40-hour weeks.

Almost all employees now can manage their workloads in less time, yet they re forced to drag their heels to conform to labour law standards. There’s no doubt this causes a level of psychological damage, in fact, arbitrary labour was a common technique used in prisons as a form of punishment.

Digging holes, breaking rocks and running on a treadmill were all part of prison regimes that have since been banned, (how puzzling it would have been to the Victorian inmates to learn that we now pay hundreds to gain access treadmills).

Looking to the future

As much as it might feel like a fantasy, we’re already making tentative steps towards a four-day week. Over the past decade the UK and other similar nations have seen a gradual relaxation of the way people work in any given day and in fact, there are many people that already work a version of four-day weeks.

This is most commonly framed in conversations around the “gig” economy and freelancers, who have (voluntarily or not) opted for flexibility over security. Though significant, it is the UK’s gradual acceptance of flexible working flexi-time and working from home that signals a radical change in the workplace. Now UK law makes it a legal right for any person to request flexible working and company can only refuse on valid business grounds.  

Moreover, the ease with which we can share information and communicate means that the very need for “workplaces” is in decline. Tools like Slack, Skype, and Google Drive have boosted workplace efficiency to an unprecedented level. As a consequence, many companies are opting to move their business to a purely online medium, saving millions on office space, with no harm to productivity whatsoever.

This rapid ascent towards hypoconnectivity doesn’t show any signs of slowing down either. The increased functions and capabilities of smartphones, the expansion of IOT (internet of things) and the near-future adoption of a 5G network in the UK all point towards a golden age of communication.

Is a four-day week around the corner?

The structure and demand is there for reduced working hours, what’s needed now is an increase in individual companies taking the plunge and testing a four day week. Once pioneers start taking the initiative, laws and UK policy will follow suite.  It isn’t really even a leap of faith considering the successes of past trials but rather a sensible and cost-efficient way to improve both your company and your employees’ lifestyles.  

Will it happen? That depends entirely on how people react to these radical advances in technology. Change of this speed and severity always brings about a level of protectionism and conservatism that can inhibit progress: just look at AI’s reception in the working world.

To many, technology ignites a certain inner Luddite, that regards progress as a danger to society (If you’re looking for some unreasonably dense philosophy to explain this, Heidegger’s “Tool Theory” ought to do it).  While not entirely misplaced, this belief often overeggs the power technology yields in and of itself.

What will make or break the four-day week isn’t a fear of technology but the relationships between companies and their employees. To reduce working hours, without adjusting pay takes an enormous amount of trust from employers.  If it doesn’t work and productivity slumps, there could be dire consequences for the business.

Change isn’t going to come from giant, faceless companies that have a lot to lose and limited interaction with their workforce. Instead it will be progressive, socially responsible businesses that care about their employee’s well-being and trust them to time-manage effectively. 

The particulars of this transition remain unclear: what country will be the first to implement it nationally, how gradual its spread will be, who will be entitled to it first. What is clear, however, is that the wheels of change are in motion. TUC’s vision of 4 day working week will be reality and it will happen sooner than the end of this century.

 

 

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