Updated: Sep 14, 2020
"Sign me up for a 4-day work week any day!"
Workplace specialist Bertie Van Wyk from Herman Miller replies with a joyful exclamation in the latest episode of TEDxFromHome when asked about the possibility of a reduced working week. Ideas for cutting the weekly hours of work have been in circulation for years, and with COVID-19 and the changes it has imposed on work life, the question is perhaps now more timely than ever. So in this post, I will pause and hit the rewind button on that segment of Bertie’s interview to explore the possibilities of making a reduced working week a reality in our post-pandemic lives.
I must say that I wholeheartedly relate to the interviewee's excitement. As a 20-year-old to-be finalist about to face the reality of full-time employment within the next few years of my life, the idea of a 4-day working week or 6-hour day seems, honestly, great. And I expect many of my peers would agree. After all, when rising retirement ages are an unfortunate real running joke among my generation, who would oppose having more time for non-work-related interests, hobbies, and socialising before we're so old and sick that new and exciting aspirations become too difficult to carry out?
The argument for reduced working hours gets especially persuasive with anecdotes and reports of organisations that have successfully trialled the model. Bertie gives the example of Microsoft Japan; in August 2019, the company gave its employees an extra day off every week. This didn’t only result in more content employees and less costs for Microsoft Japan, but it also increased productivity by 40%. I don't have to be a great mathematician to understand that a 20% reduction in working hours combined with a 40% gain in productivity seems like an excellent deal for both the employer and the employees. Or, in the words of Bertie:
"I can get more done by actually doing less work."
Several analyses have also suggested that a shorter working week could be incredibly beneficial for tackling the climate crisis, undoubtedly the gloomiest shadow over any visions of our future. Research by the Political Economy Research Institute, for example, estimates that a 10% reduction in working hours would shrink our ecological footprint (the pressure placed by human consumption on the ecosystem), by 12.1% and a 25% reduction would cut the same footprint by 30.2%. Such percentages represent substantial change, since (according to figures for 2007) a 50% reduction in our environmental footprint is needed to match the carrying capacity of the planet.
So far, it sounds like a shorter working week really should be the future of work. It is hardly controversial to say that I would not oppose improved well-being for both myself and the planet. However, when someone flashes the 4-day week card in politics, counter-arguments are swiftly voiced.
One of the most concerning issues surrounding a reduction in weekly hours is the ambiguous effect on unemployment rates. While a quick Google search will offer you several articles praising the 4-day week as a way to boost employment, a deeper dive into the matter reveals some contradictory findings. An IMF report on the reduction of weekly working hours in France at the turn of the millennium, introduced to increase employment, actually increased unemployment. When you are on track to graduate in the midst of a global recession calculated to be the worst since the Second World War, employment worries are stressful enough without any potential added losses.
We may also question if our gaze is too narrow when we look to a 4-day working week as the universal future of work. While productivity increased at Microsoft, the same result cannot be realised in all jobs. Not everyone works in an office, after all. If a doctor works fewer hours in a week, she will have time for fewer patients. When public healthcare systems are already overburdened and under-resourced, how could doctors still be paid the same salaries if more medical staff must be hired to ensure that patients’ access to care is not compromised? The same goes with many other jobs that have recently been labelled “essential work”. How can we reconcile the reality that some jobs must be done every day with a reduced working week without significant economic or human suffering?
While I would be happy to have more time to dedicate to new interests, I would hate to see the quality of basic services suffer, or the salaries of essential workers, already oftentimes underpaid, shrink. I don't want to see the most vulnerable workers getting hit the hardest by potential drawbacks.
Still, I want to have some free time before I (hopefully) get to retire, and everyone else should be able to, too. Is there a way to alleviate the concerns raised by a 4-day week? It might help to go back in time and remember that the 5-day week is not that old of a creation, either. In the UK, in fact, it was in 1934 that Boots became the first organisation to introduce a two-day weekend, for which I’m sure we can all be thankful for. Their intention was to cut surplus production brought on by the opening of a highly efficient new factory without having to lay off employees. As Bertie pointed out, modern technological developments are bound to affect work life in the future, too:
"The future is here [...] Technology will change the value that you and I bring to work."
So, is a reduction in working hours simply natural again now that we are moving into a highly robotised and technologically advanced world? The Trades Union Congress thinks that it should be. They point out that the government believes that UK output could increase by 15% due to robotics and autonomous systems. Why shouldn't that gain be directed towards decreasing the weekly hours of workers, as was done by Boots nearly a hundred years ago?
I think it should be. While worries of unemployment and other misfortune are certainly alarming to me, it seems at odds with the times to resist a reduction in weekly working hours. Workplaces that may find a 4-day week suitable for them shouldn’t shy away from experimenting, but embrace the process of trial and error, and, perhaps, they might eventually usher in the next era of work. After all, giving people more time off to look after themselves and enjoy the company of loved ones has been a gradual trend throughout the last centuries. Why should we stop now?
Written by Aada Orava. Edited by Robert Fletcher and Atharv Joshi.
You can view the full interview with Bertie Van Wyk by clicking here.
If you have any questions concerning the article, its research, and opinions expressed, do feel free to comment in the comments section, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.