When Jon* was asked to accept a 20 per cent cut in his salary at the height of the pandemic, he didn’t kick up a fuss. Of course, he understood that his marketing company in central London was battling flatlining revenues and trying to save jobs. But perhaps more importantly for the first time in his professional life, Jon had every Friday off.
He’s among the thousands of people in the UK who accepted a temporary pay cut in exchange for one day less at work as companies look to cut costs during the pandemic. But if a four-day week becomes the norm, it could save half a million jobs in the public sector alone, according to think tank Autonomy. Rather than cutting salaries, which is at best a temporary solution, research argues that the government could part-subsidise a five year plan to allow the UK’s entire workforce to transition permanently to a four day week.
The idea of chopping down the working week is nothing new. When Labour included the four-day week as part of its electoral manifesto in 2019, critics said it could wreck the economy and “turn back the clock”. The Confederation of British Industry opposed the four-day week on the basis that more flexibility, not less, was needed. But as the UK economy lies in tatters after the coronavirus lockdown, more employers are turning to the four-day week in a desperate attempt to avoid cutting jobs.
It’s easy to forget that the five day working week is quite a recent development. The idea of a two-day weekend only caught hold during the Great Recession in the 1930s, but the motivation for it was economic: the only way to save thousands of jobs was to cut the amount of working hours in the week. Almost a hundred years later, we’re in the same situation again.
The big difference is that cutting a day of work to stimulate the economy is no longer a gamble. We have proof that a four day week works. Germany rolled out the Kurzarbeit, literally ‘short work’, scheme during the 2008 financial crash to mitigate mass unemployment, subsidising a reallocation of labour. The government part-paid the salaries of millions of people during the financial downturn to avoid mass unemployment — and has turned to the same scheme again during the coronavirus crisis. Ironically, this scheme was part-inspired by the UK, specifically Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s Temporary Short-Time Working Compensation Scheme, a government-backed jobs stimulus package which was considered to be among the cheapest and most effective measures brought in to deal with the recession in that decade.
In June, a cross-party group of MPs urged chancellor Rishi Sunak to consider a four-day working week post Covid-19, arguing that it would be a “powerful tool to recover from this crisis”. So far, no official policy has been tabled.
It’s debatable whether the UK government would be willing to pay for a scheme to follow furlough. The cost of the government’s job retention scheme, by the time it ends in October, is already estimated to be upwards of £100 billion. Adding on the cost of subsidising people’s employment could be a step too far, though one could argue that the 1.2 million jobs at risk could end up costing the Treasury far more.
If it does happen, any government intervention can only act as a sticking-plaster for a larger issue. Andrew Barnes, author of the book the 4 Day Week, thinks we should scrap the five day week entirely.
“The reality is that working five days a week the research is consistent. It indicates that you are only productive approximately three hours a day. So the problem is that we use time as a surrogate for understanding productivity seriously.” He argues that a radical overhaul of the working week to 32 hours could help companies attract better talent, improve productivity and force bosses to rethink the time spent on useless tasks.
In the UK people spend, on average, 36.5 hours a week at work according to Eurostat. This is higher than the overall European average of 36.2 hours, but lower than other countries like Romania (40.5 hours), Serbia (42.3 hours) and Bulgaria (40.4 hours). But that doesn’t make us more efficient or incentivise talent.
“My belief is that more enlightened employers should look towards the German model,” says Barnes. “This is an opportunity to change how people work, but also an opportunity to think about up-skilling and governments to share the burden to keep jobs there.”
The evidence backs him up. Many startups have long offered four-day weeks as perks (and as a means to avoid people burning out). And it’s work in larger corporate experiments — Microsoft found that there was a 40 per cent boost in productivity when it allowed people to have Fridays off in a trial in 2019 — yet it still isn’t mainstream.
A third of UK businesses operating on a four-day week reported improvements in staff productivity, research from Henley Business School found last year. More importantly, it ended up saving companies that offer it £92bn a year. The research also found that this working style increased overall quality of life for employees, with over three quarters (78 per cent) of implementing businesses saying staff were happier, less stressed (70 per cent) and took fewer days off ill (62 per cent).
One of the happy four day workers is Alice*, who took on a new job during the pandemic, swapping a toxic US employer to work in a small UK consultancy four days a week. “It definitely means I have to rethink how to be productive but it’s been a good challenge,” she says. “Now I feel like I have to really make a concerted effort to not be a workaholic and if I have time off, enjoy it.”
Of course, not everyone will like the change. Companies that think they can just lop a day off their working week and expect everything to go well are very mistaken, says Lizzie Benton, founder of Liberty Mind, a company culture consultancy.
“Whether businesses right now are doing it for the right reason is obviously the biggest question. It looks great, having the four day week, but a salary pay cut right now isn’t the best for everybody, so you can get backlash,” she says. There are trust issues as well, when an employee is being forced to work four days after they had already asked for flexible working in the past and were rebuffed. “It can create this ‘them and us’ culture, which is really toxic, making it feel like there’s a bit of a superiority complex going on in the company culture, which can really rub people up the wrong way. Internally, [the four-day working week] can be very damaging if it’s not been properly spoken about.”
A lot of the businesses that are desperate to cut costs aren’t going to go through the testing and trial phase that traditionally happens when we change anything in regards to working operations and hours, Benton warns. What can happen is any problem or situation that occurs, businesses just go ‘Oh well, it doesn’t work so we’re going to have to go back to a five day week’. And they just throw it out the window.”
Of course, a four-day week is far from the holy grail of wellness at work. Economist Robert Skidelsky warned against increasing exhaustion as contracted employees crammed their work into four days, plus negative impacts on unskilled and zero-hours workers who need the hours to get paid. Yet pressure for such a shift is mounting.
After all, the alternative is even worse. Some London-based office workers like Sam* were told that they are getting a 20 per cent pay cut to avoid redundancies, but not a reduction in hours.
“[It] was really disappointing,” says Sam. “I feel the work I do could be done in a four-day period but I think it would need to be achieved similarly to shift work. If offices were to manage teams within the business to ensure that all five days of the working week could be covered that could be really effective. The five-day working week doesn’t change, the staff see an increase in personal time and the business gets happier, more well-rested staff. This really is a no-brainer to me.”
“It also opens up some real possibilities for abuse from already overworked staff. There have been countless anecdotes of staff working longer hours in lockdown because they’re effectively always at work. If you combine that with fewer hours to get it done then you could have a real issue of people doing way more than their contracted hours.”
*Names have been changed
Natasha Bernal is WIRED’s business editor. She tweets from @TashaBernal
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