Imagine working reduced hours over a four-day week and having a three day weekend, every week.
It seems like a radical idea, one that is far removed from the current obsession with grind and hustle culture which praises having little to no work-life balance as the ultimate manifestation of a ‘successful’ young professional. But, in the aftermath of the pandemic, could the four-day working week be the perfect solution to maximise productivity and worker satisfaction?
In essence, the four-day working week would mean that employees would work reduced hours without a cut in pay. As we emerge from the pandemic which saw millions of people forced to work from home for nearly two years, this may be a welcome change. Working from home over such a long period of time made a lot of employers realise that their companies can function without employees being on site and many have continued working from home despite restrictions being lifted. This means working practice has changed monumentally since the beginning of 2020. The four-day working week may be the next natural progression as the pandemic and multiple lockdowns gave people time to reflect on their lifestyles, with many realising that they need to prioritise their mental health and well-being by achieving a more rounded work-life balance. The four-day working week would provide employees with more free time outside of work, with no loss in pay. It seems like the next best step for governments and businesses to take if they would like to sustain a happy and motivated working population following such difficult and precarious times.
But is there any proof that the four-day working week actually achieves anything? Well, between 2015 and 2019, the national government in Iceland conducted a study which saw 1% of its working population, across a variety of sectors, be given a reduction of weekly hours. The experiment was a huge success as it saw an increase in productivity, well-being and workplace morale. It also led to long-term changes as a large majority of the current working population now works permanently reduced hours.
Elsewhere, the company Unilever also carried out an experiment in which it made its employees in New Zealand work for four days without pay reductions. Again, this test had a positive outcome as employees got 20% more work done and they reported their stress levels to be dramatically lower. Off the back of these experiments, other countries such as Spain, Ireland and Scotland are also trialling four-day workweeks, encouraged by the positive outcomes both economically and in terms of worker welfare.
So it seems that many countries are enchanted by the prospect of a four-day working week. This does not mean, however, that it is the perfect solution across all economies and sectors, such as healthcare or hospitality. With the implementation of a four-day working week, many businesses and companies would still expect their employees to carry out the same amount of work as a 40 hour week. This would mean drastically changing working practices to maximise efficiency and prevent office workers, for example, having to go home and continue working in order to keep up with the workload. Such a change would need time to implement into different business models and is not something to be taken lightly.
Despite this, as we leave the pandemic behind, there is no doubt that we have learnt a lot about working practice. Economists use ‘productivity’ or the ability to produce a certain amount of goods and services per hour as a tool to forecast economic growth. So in order for employers to be persuaded by reduced hours it may be important to reconsider the ways in which we work. At Microsoft Japan, meetings were capped at 30 minutes to ensure that they were as efficient and effective as possible. This idea of efficiency is something that has gained momentum during and after the pandemic as many people have realised that many things can be communicated and achieved simply over an e-mail or short message.
Another consequence of the pandemic is also an increased importance on well-being and mental health. If the working week is more productive but less strenuous in terms of hours and physical hours spent in the office, employee well-being is more likely to improve. A three-day weekend also gives employees more free time to spend with family or pursue hobbies. The four-day week would work particularly well in corporate sectors, sectors in which graduates report quickly experiencing burnout just a few years after getting their first job.
The feeling of control over our schedules and lives outside work is definitely something that everyone wants regardless of what stage of their career that they’re at and as the various experiments across the globe show, the four-day working week can provide just that. Many changes are on the horizon after the pandemic and perhaps the biggest one should be the way in which we work. It’s never been more appropriate to look after ourselves holistically and a big part of this will come from striking a good balance between our professional and social lives.
Image: Martin Vorel