Four-day weeks are all the rage. But can they work?

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The business world badly wants a silver bullet to solve the existential crisis engulfing white-collar work as productivity falls.


A working assumption is that the silver bullet in question is the four-day week. It follows much fanfare about the success of trials around the world, and now a bill in the US that would amend the definition of the workweek in US federal law has been relaunched by Democrat Congressman Mark Takano.


“Workers across the nation are collectively reimagining their relationship to labour,” Mr Takano said.


So what’s not to like? Certainly, there is a systemic problem with work.


When the Takano bill first came in a year ago, it drew comparisons with Henry Ford’s five-day week, and went back further to the early trade union movements including the Welsh socialist pioneer Robert Owen and his 1817 slogan a century earlier: “Eight hours’ labour, Eight hours’ recreation, Eight hours’ rest.”


Ideas around less work and more leisure regained traction a decade ago with an influential book, Utopia for Realists, by Dutch social thinker Rutger Bregman. He devoted a chapter to the 15-hour week — revisiting the famous 1930 essay of economist John Maynard Keynes — and argued that automation and artificial intelligence would shorten the working hours anyway.


But in reality this is proving to be significantly messier than anticipated.


Lynda Gratton, a professor of management practice at the London Business School lays bare the complex struggles leaders have had in the past three years to find models of hybrid that work. Only 42% of companies and executives she surveyed globally had settled on “final hybrid-work design”, she wrote in the Harvard Business Review.


The ambition to codify new working norms into a single system like a 20% reduction in working hours for 100% of pay is laudable, but is not workable. The ‘F’ should be for flexibility, not four days.


In its recent report ‘Working Time and Work Life Balance Around the World’, the International Labour Organisation acknowledged that “mismatches between workers’ actual hours of work and their preferred hours of work exist for a substantial portion of the global workforce”, namely “workers would prefer to work longer hours to increase their earnings but are unable to do so”.


The employment market today simply cannot be compared like-for-like to that of a century ago, which is the inspiration for the four-day week campaign. The use of new technology is pervasive and not confined to the factory floor. The white-collar worker and the blue-collar worker are strangely united by both the pressures of separating work and leisure and increasingly the economics of doing so.


What’s more, many who are experimenting with the so-called four-day week itself are structuring their programmes not on a stringent four-day schedule but flexible arrangements that suit the needs of the individual workers and companies, such as two half days instead of one full day off.


Research in the UK showed most people prefer flexible hours over the rigidity of a four-day week. In Australia, which is facing an acute labour shortage, the share of job postings citing a four-day week is rising dramatically, but it still represents a fraction of overall jobs.


Christy Hoffman, general secretary of UNI Global Union, which represents 20m workers in 150 countries, pointed out in a session on the four-day week at Davos that “flexibility is what everybody wants. Some people would rather have a five-day workweek and then have six weeks off.”


And Rob Sadow of Scoop, an office time scheduling tool, who publishes an index of flexible job openings, said: “Most people started bringing their work home with them anyway as soon as email made it onto the phone. I expect in a few years time we’ll see a lot less focus on when exactly an employee is working, and more focus on the outcomes that employee is generating for the business.” Here’s hoping.


In the meantime, I caution against the silver bullet theory of work resting on a four-day week or any other fixed model. The panacea is something far more nuanced.


Julia Hobsbawm is a columnist for Bloomberg and founder of The Nowhere Office


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