Are The Days Of The Traditional Workweek Numbered?

By Ruadhán Glover

In recent months, COVID-19 has given rise to economic disaster for countless companies across the globe. Millions of people have lost their jobs, while those businesses who have managed to survive the economic crash thus far face the daunting challenge of controlling and mitigating the upset to all facets of their operations. However, amidst the huge disruptions to workplace and societal norms brought on by COVID-19, the potential for increasingly flexible models of work has been inadvertently highlighted. The idea of a four-day workweek is one such model which is currently shifting from the fringes to the mainstream with growing momentum. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern recently endorsed the idea of a shorter workweek as a method of increasing employee welfare and productivity in these trying times. Likewise, the results of a survey published by the Four Day Week Ireland campaign this week revealed that over three-quarters of people would support the government researching the potential of a four-day work week. But what exactly does a four-day workweek entail, and is it really possible to increase productivity by working less?

What is a four-day workweek?

Many common misconceptions surround the model of a four-day workweek, predominantly that it merely involves the compressing of a forty-hour workweek into four days rather than five. An authentic four-day workweek involves employees reducing, rather than compressing, their number of hours worked per week by approximately eight, in the hope of driving productivity out of such flexibility. Furthermore, progressive models of the shortened workweek should not include any reductions of salaries. If, as a result of greater productivity stemming from a shortened workweek, an employer’s bottom line is actually improving, then it is arguably unreasonable to cut the wages of those responsible for the increase in efficiency. A trial of the shorter workweek model by Microsoft in their Japan base in August 2019 reported a 40% increase in productivity during this period. With greater control over when and how they work, employees are more concentrated on the quality of their tasks, and less on how frequently they are working.
The recent momentum behind the concept of the four-day workweek has come on the back of workers need for flexible work arrangements during the Covid-19 crisis. However, this is not the first time in history that the length of a typical workweek has seen a drastic reduction.

In the final decade of the 19th century, it was estimated that an average factory floor employee in the US worked 100 hours per week. However, by the mid-20th century, a mere 60 years later, this had been reduced to the current standard 40-hour workweek. When put in such context, the reduction of our workweek by eight hours isn’t nearly as extreme as first seemed.

Additional Employer Benefits

Employees are not the only beneficiaries of a shortened workweek. In addition to the aforementioned increase in productivity that can be obtained through the model, a four-day workweek presents employers with the opportunity to diversify their pools of talent by attracting those who cannot, for various reasons, work the traditional five-day workweek. Furthermore, employers can safeguard their future talent through the provision of flexible work arrangements. Now, more than ever, young working professionals are placing great emphasis on their own wellbeing. Millennials are drawn to employment perks such as flexible working hours in addition to traditional pension and bonus benefits. The implementation of a four-day workweek can consequently greatly enhance an employer’s ability to attract and maintain the best and brightest workers in the industry.

Additional Societal Benefits

In addition to the aforementioned benefits to both productivity and employee wellbeing, a four-day workweek also has the positive effects of promoting both equality in the workplace and a more positive carbon footprint. The pressure to abide by gender roles and to take responsibility for household welfare sees many women excluded from the workplace. According to Gender Pay Gap research, the largest barrier for women in paid employment across the board is the struggle to balance work with family responsibilities. A four-day workweek would encourage the sharing of these responsibilities among partners, while allowing workers to balance their work commitments and family responsibilities. Furthermore, from an environmental perspective, a four-day workweek would have a more
positive effect on the national carbon footprint. The use of office spaces for shorter periods of time would result in a lower output of energy, while removing just one day of worker commutes could greatly assist in the reduction of damaging carbon dioxide emissions. Indeed, Microsoft Japan’s one-month trial saw their electricity costs alone decrease by 25%.

Will we see any change?

It is quite feasible that when Covid-19 passes, we may plead to return to work five days a week in order to regain a sense of normality. However, if nothing else, this pandemic has presented employers with both the business reasons and the opportunity to transition to shorter work weeks. By creating a company that values employee wellbeing and productivity over hours put in, businesses can reap the rewards of working less hours. If we all finally give up on the idea that working longer will result in greater standards of business and life, the four-day work week could well become the latest shake up in a long list of changes to workplace and societal norms brought on by Covid-19. Indeed, maybe some good will finally come of this crisis.

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