Would a four day work week be good for business?

January 15, 2020
Would a four day work week be good for business?

The newly elected prime minister of Finland has thrown the four day work week into the media spotlight again, by announcing her support for this more relaxed way of working. But while many people support the idea of four 6-hour shifts per week, many sceptics denounce the idea as madness. So what’s the crack? Could a four day work week actually be good for business?

There are many shades of four day work weeks

Finland’s new prime minister is talking about a very streamlined version of the four day work week. One where workers don’t just cut their days, but they cut their hours, too.

But there are different versions of the four day work week, including the’4/10 work week’ – where employees work 40 hours, spread over four 10-hour shifts.

But this 4/10 style of working isn’t particularly radical. It’s just a different way of dividing full-time hours over fewer days. And when Forbes reported on this practice back in 2013, reported feedback wasn’t particularly positive.

“I’m 52 and I don’t have the energy I had when I was 22” says one person, quoted in Forbes. “With a 4/10 schedule, I’d need the other day to recover, and that defeats the whole purpose of a four day work week”

But what is the purpose of a four day work week?

In theory, it provides a better work life balance

The thinking from most supporters of the four day work week, is that it improves work-life balance, boosts wellbeing at work, and ultimately, has a positive impact on productivity.

“Four day work weeks can deliver incredible benefits to both organisations and employees” says Lizzie Benton, founder and culture consultant at Liberty Mind. “People deliver their work as they are aware of a shorter amount of time, and sick leave is reduced as people are less stressed.”

This idea of people being more productive under a reduced-hours four day work week, is not new to me. In fact, some experts I speak to have told me that when we work the traditional five day week, we subconsciously drag tasks out longer, in order to pace ourselves. But actually, we don’t need that much time to do our jobs!

But I still find myself asking where the evidence is.

Productivity jumped by 40% for Japanese workers

Microsoft did a trial run of a four day work week in Japan, back in Summer 2019. And according to The Guardian, they found that productivity leapt by 40%.

In the article, journalist Kari Paul reported how Microsoft Japan gave its entire 2,300-person workforce five Fridays off in a row. Without decreasing pay.

“The shortened weeks led to more efficient meetings, happier workers and boosted productivity by a staggering 40%” reports Kari.

And that’s not the only evidence we have. And once again, I asked culture consultant Lizzie Benton for more information.

More evidence points to increased productivity

“The current evidence for the four day work week shows that both employee wellbeing and productivity are improved” says Lizzie. “One of the many interesting studies is a New Zealand based company, Perpetual Guardian, who introduced the four day work week in 2018.”

Lizzie tells me that employees could work four standard days, instead of five, but would be paid their usual salary.

And while this might instinctively feel like you’re giving away 52 holiday days for nothing, results from the eight-week study were positive. Productivity increased, and the sense of work-life balance went from 54% to 78%. And in the end, the organisation decided to fully adopt this radical new working strategy.

Even the UK government has toyed with the idea

In the UK, we tend to be a bit reserved about ideas like this. Ideas that rock the fabric of tradition, and ideas that provoke the notion of ‘that’s just the way we’ve always done things’ and ‘if it isn’t broke, why fix it’.

But actually, in 2019, even the UK political party Labour pledged to reduce the average working week to 32 hours within 10 years. This would be done by moving, where possible, to an eight hour work day, spread across just four days per week.

Of course, the Labour party didn’t get into Government in the 2019 election, so we’ll never know whether or not that might have become a reality. And not everybody was happy about the idea.

Critics argue it would be a worse deal for employees and for business

Critics of the four day work week say that employees would ultimately end up being paid less, even if that isn’t the intention. And one such critic, Lord Skidelsky, went as far as saying that such policy would fail.

“Any cap needs to be adapted to the needs of different sectors” he wrote, in a report that was actually commissioned by the Labour party trying to promote the agenda.

Lord Skidelsky did admit that the intention of letting employees work less, without losing pay, seemed “good for material and spiritual wellbeing”. But he added that imposing such a policy would not be realistic or even desirable.

And the free market Adam Smith Institute warned that forcing people to work less, would inevitably mean they earned less.

Perhaps it is time to step out of the 1800s and face modern reality

But maybe the critics are just afraid of change. After all, we know already that people resist change even when it’s good for them.

“Most businesses are afraid to give the four day work week a try, as they are concerned about the impact it would have on their customers” says Lizzie Benton. “After all, as a society we are now conditioned to expect everything to be open 24/7.”

But Lizzie finishes by telling me that the concept of our current working hours was created in the 1800s. And she says that it is almost laughable that we are still working to the same conditions and expectations, when the world around us has vastly changed.

And in some ways, I’m wondering if I agree…

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