From five-hour days to four-day weeks: is the more intensive week a good thing?

There is more and more talk of five-hour days or four-day weeks, but are they good for us if we don’t also reduce how many tasks we have to do in them?



The four-day week, City traders asking to work 9-4pm, a tech company in Germany doing a five-hour working day on full pay…All are symptoms of the demand for more time outside work as more and more families share the work and childcare load.

The four-day day week came up at our Top Employer Awards the other night. Despite overwhelming support for it in our annual survey, some were not so sure, fearing it could either straitjacket flexible working [everyone has to be off on Fridays…] or that it would lead to essentially a compressed week – doing five days in four, with all the stress that might bring.

A recent report for the Labour Party, which is looking at a reduced week on full pay, found that it was a bit of a swings and roundabouts affair. While it might work in some sectors, there were challenges in others. Radioactive PR has introduced it successfully, but that is because Fridays tend to be lighter days PR-wise and PR people are used to being on call over weekends, evenings etc if there is an emergency.

What works in a small PR firm might not, however, work for all sectors or for all parts of a large organisation, as the Wellcome Trust, which also looked into a four-day week, concluded.

The four-day week is based on the premise that people are only truly productive for four or five hours in the working day. Microsoft, for instance, tested a four-day work week in offices in Japan throughout August and found employees were happier and significantly more productive.

The Work-Life Choice Challenge Summer 2019 saw staff given five Fridays off in a row without decreasing pay, with the initiative seeing an increase in efficiency and a 40% spike in productivity. The trial also saw employees take 25% less time off and electricity use in offices dip 23%. A poll following the pilot scheme found 92% of staff say they like the shorter week.

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The tech sector was also at the centre of the five-hour day story earlier in the week. German tech firm Rheingans Digital Enabler reduced the workday to five hours from eight but left salaries and holiday time untouched and, through limiting office email use, banning social media on the job and discouraging small talk during work hours, has managed to maintain the same level of output for clients. The report says there are challenges, such as not communicating with family during the workday.

The thing that strikes me about all of this is that I know women who have been doing this kind of working for decades. When you have a strict deadline like school pick-up time, you can be extremely focused. You squeeze every drop out of your working day. The trouble is it is generally only by working away from the office that many have been able to do it. Presenteeism [highlighted in this week’s figures on absence rates halving in the past 20 years] has meant countless women have been made to feel guilty for working their hours with an A+ degree of efficiency.

Usually they have theoretically reduced to part time and are basically doing a full-time job in part-time hours with all the stress that means, including the mental stress of knowing you are being exploited. Nevertheless, despite taking a big pay cut, they are made to feel bad and ‘uncommitted’.

I’m in two minds about the four-day week therefore. On the one hand I think great, we need more time for stuff outside work and I know many people who waste time at work. If it’s on full pay all the better, but please recognise all the women who have done this for years and not been fully paid. On the other, I think it would be a pity to lose the social side of work and create even greater intensity.

Family life is often intense. Months go by without you seeing friends. For me, work is and should be much more than just a series of endless tasks. What we need to do is reduce the tasks – there’s been a move against meetings, but that seems to be in reverse with the emphasis on team working and ‘agile scrums’, plus digital seems to just add stuff all the time – in my job it means monitoring and servicing ever-increasing social media platforms, for instance, with no extra resources.

So I don’t want to cram any more into my day, thanks. I think it makes for better work if you have time to talk to your colleagues about non-work things in any event. So, yes to a four-day week or a reduced hours day, but not in a way that the days are so packed that there is no time to ask people how they are.

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