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Productivity and Play – does the 4 day working week work?

by Laura Aitken-Burt March 30, 2016

​The Easter weekend, and other four day bank holidays, are the perfect fortnight in the working calendar – four days on and four days off. Anyone forward thinking enough to book annual leave over this time would get a brilliant sixteen days off work for the price of eight!

These rare events always raise the debate on flexible working and the utopian idea of a four day working week. It certainly seems like a more balanced lifestyle to have between our jobs and private lives rather than the five days on two days off as has been the case for over a century. This model has shaped our mindset of what our working lives should be but, in reality, was created as a job creation technique after the Great Depression for factory-based companies where the more hours you put in, the more products could be manufactured. Surely this is anachronistic in the 21st century where populations are larger, tertiary jobs are more in demand and technology has enabled us to even work remotely?

The great war-time economist John Maynard Keynes expected that by the 21st century we would all only be working 15 hours a week(!) Unfortunately, that economic foresight has not come true, and we still work to a 'hamster wheel frenzy' – most notably of all in the consulting profession where long office hours make it hard to nurture relationships with spouses, children, parents or friends. Many women in business still see the decision to raise a family as potentially harmful to their career due to the hours that are expected of them. A poll on Mumsnet found 80% of parents considering flexible working more important to them than other company benefits like gym membership, private health insurance or a company car – 61% even valued it higher than a pay rise.

So could a four day working week work in practice? During the recession of 1974, the Government introduced a three day working week and surprisingly production did not fall as much as expected. Utah in 2008 introduced four day working weeks for it's state employees and productivity and worker satisfaction were said to be boosted. Indeed, they only switched back to a five day week in 2011 after complaints about lack of services on Fridays. The Gambia introduced a four day work week in 2013, certain companies in Sweden have introduced six hour working days and the average hours of work per week in Norway and Denmark is 33 hours rather than 40+ as in the UK and US.

So there are success stories to the four day working week, though reducing the number of hours would mean less pay and is not feasible for those who need the income. But in the Netherlands one in three men still works the 40 hours but over four days. Is extending the work day for more full days off worth it? Some employees say not, for working 10-14 hours would be too tiring and the extra day off would be needed to recover, defeating the purpose of the four day work week itself. Indeed, even during the day 'off' it would be hard for many to actually have more free time with the phone ringing and emails pinging all day. Advances in technology, though allowing us to work remotely, also create problems in always being 'on'. There is a growing concern that we should all keep our digital lives in a healthy balance, just as with our diet etc.

But the four day work week is a selling point when it comes to recruitment by emphasising the improved quality of life that could be had. New start up companies, particularly in the growing technology sector, are leading the way in offering different forms of work though it is not only new companies that can accommodate this schedule. At Deloitte, talent partner Emma Codd has begun to offer staff different working options after calculating that 40% of workers coming into the London office had to travel more than two hours each way every day to get home. KPMG also allows compressed weeks, arranged individually between employees and their managers. Barbara Wankoff, director of KPMG's workplace solutions, says "We recognize it's a win-win for the company and the employees. Their satisfaction goes way up when they have control over their time. And it increases employee morale and productivity and retention."

But in competitive businesses like consulting, there is still a fear that remote workers are 'missing out' on the flow of ideas and information and will not gain advancement over those physically in the office who are seen as more 'committed'. It is certainly an issue that personal lives are often not taken into consideration when achievements are made through long hours and hard work, and the detriment it places on our private health and wellbeing. The four day work week therefore seems to succeed more if it is a company wide schedule.

Parkinson's Law dictates, 'work expands to fit however much time it can' so in fact by working intensely in four days, the same amount of work can get done. Research shows that working in shorter bursts makes employees more creative, eager and refreshed for work. Because of this, career analysts predict that flexible working will only continue to grow in popularity as productivity is measured less in face time in the office and more in the results. By creating happier employees, productivity will only increase and removes the misconception that our jobs are the most important part of our lives. In a report by Vodafone of companies who have tried to implement this scheme, 83% reported improvement in productivity in workers and only 8% raised concerns about employers not working hard when being given more freedom. Even in negotiations over the implementation of the Night Tube this year, staff were offered a four day work week to avoid strikes so it is something that is certainly seen as a benefit for many. 

There are also indications that a four day work week could benefit the economy. Costs would be lowered with less lights on and commuting fewer times a week. The New Economics Foundation stated the social and environmental benefits by reducing the carbon footprint of offices and by placing new value on unpaid things like “being active citizens, caring for people, better parents”. Conversely, although the recent Government bill on increasing Sunday trading hours was not passed, having four day work weeks actually supports seven day working by creating more jobs in the three days others have off, boosting the economy by reducing unemployment and benefits payouts.

With these results, perhaps it is time for more companies to acknowledge the ability for new ways of working in the modern digital world. We must admit that it is a pretty old-fashioned model to insist on people coming into an office, miles away from home, for 8am and leave at 7pm on busy commutes, given new technology means they can work from home, at least for some days a year or to give the option if people would like to place a different emphasis on their lives, such as their family.

Perhaps a four day week could be used as a transition to retirement as the age of retirement continues to increase? Happy, trusted employees are always those who give more and a recent Yougov poll says 57% Britons want a four day work week with 71% saying we would be a happier nation – isn't that what we all need?

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