Is the 4-day week an idea whose times has finally come?
Will 2020 be the year the four-day week takes off? Despite some derisory comments during the general election campaign when Labour proposed it – mainly because it was bundled together with the ongoing and ever-deepening NHS staffing crisis – polls show that giving people more time is often much more popular than giving them more money.
In general elections everything is in any event about the very short term when arguments about the four-day week take a more long-term view about workplace trends – which include everything from our ageing workforce and flexible working to the rise of automation.
It is true that arguments in favour of the ‘leisure society’ have been a feature of discussions about the workplace for many decades, with early predictions that technology would free people up to work fewer hours. Instead, however, we have the ‘always on’ society and burnout as people work all hours and check emails in their holidays or from their sick beds. Mental health is now one of the most pressing health concerns globally and workplace stress is a big contributor. Have we reached peak work? Is how we work no longer sustainable?
There definitely seems to be a major push back on the work life balance front. People are opting to leave or not to join employers who don’t offer flexible working or work life balance. In a labour market where skills shortages are high in many sectors that is not likely to reverse any time soon. Technology is enabling many to set up on their own – and employ others to work more flexibly and locally. Environmental problems are forcing a rethink in the commuter model as are pressures on working families and a host of other issues, including a need to revive our local communities. Automation is already reshaping the way we work.
All the ingredients are in place, but is there the will to take a step back from the bustle of everyday life, to take the risk that a more radical approach will result in longer term gains in terms of recruitment and retention? Someone who implemented a four-day week trial at work asked me if I thought it was risky. It’s interesting because many people seem to think that such companies are trying out the four-day week as a cheap PR gimmick. Nothing could be further from the truth. It seems that in all the current uncertainty taking risks is not a wise option, yet standing still is also not a risk-free option. And the current political, social, environmental and economic uncertainty is not likely to end any day soon after all.
So what might happen in 2020 with the four-day week? Already we’ve seen articles on how the new Finnish Prime Minister – Sanna Marin – is reported to be in favour, in the longer term, of the introduction of a flexible working schedule for Finland, including a four-day week and a six-hour working day. Next month also sees the publication of Andrew Barnes’ book The 4-Day Week. Andrew is founder of Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand trust business that supervises nearly NZ$200bn in assets, and switched its 240 employees to a four-day week, with a reported 20% increase in productivity.
As a result of publicity over the company’s achievement Andrew has established 4 Day Week Global and the 4 Day Week Global Foundation with his partner, Charlotte Lockhart. Their vision is to provide a community environment for companies, researchers/academics and interested parties to be able to connect and advance the four-day week idea as part of the future of work. Andrew is also on the advisory boards of both the US and Ireland 4 Day Week campaigns and the board of the newly created Wellbeing Research Centre at Oxford University.
He says: “With its emphasis on productivity, the four-day week tackles hard issues facing our world, for example, stress and the breakdown in mental health, gender equality in pay, and the environmental crisis. Four-day weeks offer significant societal benefits from relief of congested highways and public transport systems, reduction in healthcare costs, through to more harmonious families and more purposeful lives.”
Is the four-day week an idea whose time has come?