It is easy to forget how recent the five-day working week is. In fact, it was first piloted in the US in 1908 and not widespread until the late 1920s, so it is under a century old. But so ingrained is it that recent news that 30 companies – including Canon’s UK arm – are piloting a four-day working week has raised either eyebrows or hopes, depending on your position.
The idea isn’t new; people have been pushing the concept that fewer, more productive, working days could make employees happier and healthier for half a century. But changing working patterns as a result of Covid-19 have highlighted this as a credible concept. So can it – and would it – work?
Evidence suggests it can. Some businesses – Morrisons is one, Microsoft another – have already been trialling similar schemes to great effect. Where countries like Iceland have tried it, they too report increases in well-being and drops in short-term absences without sacrificing productivity. Then there are the immeasurable benefits: we are in a competitive labour market. Offering such flexibility could make a real difference to talent attraction – and retention.
But it’s far from cut and dried.
The first issue is how to adapt. Previous trials have rested on increasing focus and productivity, not redistributing working time. The point is not to simply spread a 35-hour week across four days instead of five. Likewise, the extra day off must be a day off – not a day on call, whether to offer advice or sign off a decision. If employees are still expected to be contactable and available to work if required, the well-being benefits will be lost.
The next challenge is applicability. Some professional, office-based staff, in knowledge-economy roles, measured on targets and outputs, might well adapt to this system. But some occupations require physical presence too – it is hard to see how those could be adjusted. Other jobs either cannot or should not be done faster than they already are. No-one wants slapdash medical surgery, for example, and bank traders presumably can’t trade any faster; if they could, they would.
If we assume this isn’t workable across all roles and industries, we risk developing a two-tier system. Where these roles co-exist in larger organisations, it could cause resentment – and even potentially run into legal challenges.
This risks creating social inequality. There are some professional roles that require physical presence (surgeons, teachers) – but the majority tend to be lower-paid. It is worth considering what happens in a world where the professional classes get a longer weekend than everyone else.
If it is not widely adopted, other issues come into play. The current, generally-accepted, system works partly because most people have the same two days off. How many clients would want professional services from a firm that didn’t respond on a Friday? If only a few organisations embrace this, they may make themselves less competitive. This goes double for any firms operating across borders. Financial Services, which relies on multinational co-operation, could be hamstrung if it were to take out a fifth of capacity. This could have disastrous consequences for the City. If other countries were doing business for 25 per cent longer this would challenge its status.
There are many possible benefits to a four-day week. But unless implementation is done intelligently and at scale across industries, there is a real chance that it would exacerbate, not address, problems it seeks to solve.