For or against a 4-day work week?Reading Time: 4 minutes
With 2020’s global shake-up there’s been plenty of opportunity to rethink how we work – and how much we work.
Rightly so – stress, overwork and burnout have become all too common in recent years.
Workplace cultures have, for too long, rewarded presenteeism (staying late in the office to appear more hardworking) and too many companies choose to keep the status quo rather than explore more flexible options.
So it’s about time we had the conversation about shorter work weeks. It was brought back onto the agenda with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern suggesting businesses adopt a 4-day work week as one of the pathways out of the economic crisis. The thinking is that with international travel off the menu for a while, an extra leisure day each week would mean native New Zealanders get out more and contribute to the tourist economy themselves.
Outside of the current pandemic, the 4-day week has been gaining momentum in the last few years anyway. It doesn’t mean compressing the same number of hours into a shorter week – it means cutting a day out of the work week, but paying employees the same as before.
Sound a bit too radical? Well, it’s been trialled by companies that report a whole host of benefits – including an increase in the all-important bottom line. From healthier employees to better quality work, there’s evidence that less time at work can make businesses more competitive in all sorts of ways.
Let’s have a look at the arguments for and against a four-day work week.
Arguments for the 4-day work week
Working more doesn’t always lead to more productivity.
And being at the office doesn’t mean you’re always working. In fact, here in the UK, we have the longest working week in Europe, but we’re not the most productive. Somewhat counter-intuitively, working less might be the solution.
Here’s the thinking: having less time to work means you focus more on doing the important stuff. It means less tolerance of wasting time in endless meetings. You’re not as tempted to fritter away your day reading the news or scrolling social feeds. Knowing your weekend is closer causes you to focus and prioritise what matters most.
After trying it for a few weeks, you’ll soon realise a lot of what you do doesn’t contribute meaningfully to your business goals. And the 5-day 9-5 week is an outdated relic of a bygone era.
On a personal level, the effects on health can’t be ignored. There’s a familiar cycle you can get into, where you can’t really do anything on Saturday because you’re exhausted from the week, and Sunday is spent cramming in all the errands you couldn’t do in the week. With an extra day each weekend, you’ll discover the beauty of a true leisure day; one where you’re fully rested, with plenty of energy to get out there and enjoy yourself.
With more leisure time, people will have more opportunity to contribute to their local economies, which is something local restaurants and cultural destinations will really need in the coming years.
Parents also get to spend more time with their children. Software company Buffer found that a 4-day work week was the number 1 wish for parents, leading them to implement the shorter week for the month of May this year, with the possibility of extending it based on performance.
There are also some great arguments from a societal perspective. Fewer working hours means fewer journeys taken by car and public transport – that means fewer emissions and pollution going into our air. Optimising road networks to reduce congestion can lead to millions of pounds of productivity growth, too. It also means less time in the office for most people, which is going to be a necessity in the age of social distancing.
Against the four-day work week
There are a few concerns for the shortened work week. Although it’s a pretty great idea, there are some organisations that’ll have to think harder about how to make it work.
Any workplace that needs people to be present in a certain place – like air traffic controllers, tourist destinations, hospitals, and so on – will have to think about scheduling. They probably won’t feel as much benefit as their output may be broadly the same however much time they spend at work.
Think about a construction site – if you took away 20% of working hours (on full pay), workers would be happier and more rested. But would they get more done in the compressed time? The way projects are managed on a building site, with so many complex moving parts, would certainly make it difficult.
So this sort of thing might only work for those in the ‘information economy’ or other types of output-based companies.
Scheduling and keeping everything fair will be a challenge for some organisations, and experiments in the past have shown it doesn’t always work. Take the Wellcome Trust for example. This research foundation couldn’t find a way to fairly transition its 800+ office staff to four-day weeks, calling it “too operationally complex to implement”.
Crucially, this decision came after a three-month trial. So while you might not end up adopting it, there’s definitely a case for trying it out at the very least.
And who knows – maybe you’ll never look back.