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The 4-Day Working Week

Few would expect a nascent political party that took home less than 3% of the vote to have much sway on policy. And yet, the progressives of Más País have just obtained approval from the Spanish government for the crux of their launch platform: a state-backed trial of a 4-day working week. Although this secures Spain’s place in history as the first country to throw its weight behind such a test, the idea has been growing in popularity for years.

Periodically popping up on left-wing and workers’ party agendas, it has long been presented as the logical next step in the improvement of working conditions. Over the last quarter-century, breakthroughs in communication technology have been gnawing at the necessity of trundling back-and-forth to the office. More recently, ever-smarter AI has been sweeping up all manner of menial tasks, and the rise of the gig economy has redefined flexibility. All it took was a deadly airborne virus to definitively prove ingrained habits could be shed. Lockdowns threw off work-life balances like never before, and employee well-being emerged as a vital concern. A lot of how we have been working hasn’t been working, and the time seems ripe for change.

Nowadays, a 4-day working week is far more than office gossip. Parroting the noblest of humanitarian causes, antipodal ‘non-profit communities’ have spawned in the UK and New Zealand. The sheer quantity of articles and reports on the topic produced of late would require an extra day off just to read them. Proponents proclaim the plan a panacea for flatlining wages, automation-driven unemployment, inequality and ill-health. Critics cry economic catastrophe, contending this is but the latest gimmick of bubble-rich tech giants and another creeping extension of the nanny-state lulling the working masses into subsidised submission. Is it the future of work, or does TGI Fridays need not fret over rebranding costs?

Work History

The industrial revolution changed the way we keep time as much as it did the factors of production. Until the 19th century, labouring from cradle to early grave was the norm. Seldom-deserved praise be to Christianity for instituting Sunday as a holy day of rest and, theoretically, worship. In England’s industrial North, the drinking habits of the devout on the Lord’s Day were so biblical in proportion that Mondays were often missed entirely (known in the folklore as taking a ‘Saint Monday’), pushing employers to trade Saturday afternoons off as well. The happy misalignment of the Jewish Sabbath, running from nightfall Friday to nightfall Saturday, meant that by the early 20th century, Jewish workers in the United States were awarded the first-ever ‘weekend’. Although Great Britain had paved the way by generously capping the workday of children to 10 hours in 1847, the Spanish legislated the first universal 8-hour day by royal decree in 1919, following a 44-day general workers’ strike in Barcelona.

In 1926, the Ford Motor Company became the first industrial behemoth to implement a 5-day, 40-hour working week. Far from an act of largesse, Henry Ford expected workers to hike productivity and spend more on cars for their newfound leisure time in return (all work and no play makes Jack a bad consumer after all). In 1928, the doyen of modern economics John Maynard Keynes himself announced that efficiency gains from technological advances would shorten the workweek to 15 hours within a century (a prediction that seems mightily off). In the midst of the Great Depression, the Roosevelt administration officially enacted the 5-day working week in 1932 in a bid to curtail soaring unemployment. The number of hours in a typical working week steadily tumbled throughout the rest of the 20th century. In 2000, France went farthest by signing a 35-hour workweek into law.

Nowadays, Western nations demand roughly 40 hours of toil from employees each week. In terms of average annual working hours, those in developing countries tend to work more than their counterparts in developed countries, as do those in South East Asia, with the likes of Cambodia, Mexico and Singapore topping the charts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most productive countries on Earth, as measured by value generated per hour of labour, are those combining attractiveness to multinationals with a penchant for financial services, such as Ireland, Luxembourg and Switzerland. Although no causal relationship can judiciously be deduced, the inverse correlation is clear: those who work less tend to be more efficient. A 4-day working week would undoubtedly be in line with the historical and empirical trend.

The Pros and Cons

First of all, there is notable disagreement over what a 4-day workweek would entail. Although some claim it would mean working longer hours in the day to achieve the same weekly total (compressing the hours of five days into four), the vast majority of initiatives simply reduce the number of hours worked in a week by one day’s worth. Most also provide freedom as to which weekday is forfeited as long as the needs of the business are met. Crucially, this is usually done without any reduction in pay.

Economically, the red flags cannot fly up fast enough. Cutting weekly work time by 20% would surely devastate overall output. Unless productivity miraculously shot up 25% over the remaining four days, the slack would need to be picked up by new hires. The increase in staff costs would either cripple the firm financially or need be compensated by a drop in salaries. Employees could also become disengaged from their work, shifting their priorities away from those of a productive member of society. And what of the potentially devastating consequences of having to spend more time with one’s family?

Contrary to rational objections, the evidence hints that the benefits outweigh the costs. Aside from the mathematically pleasing fact that a mere 20% reduction in the workweek causes a 50% increase in the weekend, a study by Dr. Miriam Marra at the University of Reading found that almost two-thirds of companies that switched to a 4-day working week reported a boost in productivity. Accounts from further afield suggest the upside stretches far beyond:

Satisfaction: according to research by the University of Oxford, happy employees are 13% more productive (confirming Richard Branson’s long-purported mantra). In 2018, Andrew Barnes (a man who has since become the Tony Robbins of the 4-day work week), the founder of New Zealand estate managers Perpetual Guardian, initially framed the switch as a challenge to employees: find ways to improve productivity so as to maintain output, and the 5th day would be a gift. Principally by surrendering less time to social media and other distractions, overall productivity marginally increased (meaning they were actually 25% more productive on the days they were working), and staff hailed improvements in work-life balance, team engagement and a 15% drop in stress levels. Locally inspired, 150,000-employee-strong Unilever selected New Zealand as a testing ground for a similar scheme. In 2019, Microsoft Japan followed suit by granting 2,300 employees a paid Friday off each week. Partially thanks to cutting back meetings and adopting online collaboration platforms, the company reported a 40% increase in productivity.

Absenteeism: in 2020, it was estimated that almost 18 million days were taken off due to workload stress in the UK. According to Dr. Marra’s paper, 62% said staff on 4-day weeks take fewer sick days. Andalusian firm Software DelSol became Spain’s first to probe a 4-day week, covering the transition with additional employees and new technology: absenteeism dropped 28% and revenues kept growing.

Loyalty: for DelSol, the switch also helped retention: not one of the company’s 189 employees left since the plan went into effect. German services giant Awin enacted a 4-day week specifically to retain the company’s software engineers and account managers. Awin CEO Ross says companies typically neglect mental health, “I see that changing, and we want to be a driver for it.”

Economy: reprising Henry Ford’s century-old logic, increased leisure time implies increased leisure spending. The University of Reading study found 54% of employees said they would spend their day shopping, 43% would go to the cinema or theatre, and 39% would dine out at restaurants: all boons to the economy. A 3-day weekend would also spur an uptick in domestic ‘getaway’ tourism. A Cambridge Journal of Economics study found that a 5-hour reduction in working hours in Spain in 2017 would have created 560,000 jobs, raised salaries by 3.7% and increased national GDP by 1.4%. The researchers predicted any increases in staffing expenses would be offset by rising prices from economic activity.

Unemployment: aside from the obvious filling of additional job openings, more people formerly unable or unwilling to join the workforce could join productive society without sacrificing as much of their free time or duties. Shake Shack, the US burger chain, introduced 4-day schedules in 2019, betting the measure would increase worker satisfaction and make the company more attractive to employees, especially those who are parents struggling to tailor their jobs to their children’s needs.

Opportunity: since Canadian online retailer Shopify implemented a trial in response to heightening fears of burnout, employees have been revelling in the great Canadian outdoors. An extra day off not only allows workaholics to get acquainted with R & R, but also invest in themselves by learning new skills, volunteering or venturing into the arts. They may even have the time to retrain and set off down an entirely new career path to more fulfilling pastures.

Equality: the move also teases a narrowing of the gender pay gap. Women predominantly remain the ones facing a trade-off between paid working hours and unpaid childcare responsibilities. A 4-day work week would further level the playing field between the sexes, freeing up two extra days per week for family time between a couple.

Environment: a research paper conducted by David Rosnick and Mark Weisbrot found that if US employees worked the hours of Europeans, energy savings would amount to 20%. A trial conducted by the US state of Utah for government employees showed a significant ecological impact from reducing the average workweek to four days. In ten months, the project cut $1.8 million from the energy bill and saved at least 6,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions by closing the offices on Fridays. Including employee commutes, Utah estimated 12,000 metric tons of CO2 were spared, equivalent to removing 2,300 cars off the road for a year. Not to mention the reduced time wastage and traffic aggravation.

Political Momentum and Resistance

The plural of anecdote isn’t data, but there is an abundance of anecdotes. Íñigo Errejón, political scientist and leader of Más País, the political party whose 4-day working week scheme has recently been picked up by the Spanish government, channelled Victor Hugo by deeming it “an idea whose time has come.” Their proposal calls for €50 million in financing from the EU, subsidising the potential costs of adopting a 32-hour week at diminishing rates over the course of three years. They estimate 200 companies and between 3,000 and 6,000 workers could participate. A panel of experts from the public and private sector will also shepherd the scheme and analyse the results. Errejón encapsulates his party’s reasoning in saying: “How we work now is also not biologically or socially sustainable. European economies can’t compete with China to work more hours for less money. We should compete to work in better conditions.” Although the finer details are still being hashed out, the pilot could be underway as early as September. The world will be looking towards the Spanish trial as a bellwether.

Across the globe, there is evidence of building political momentum. In the UK, the idea featured prominently on the Green Party manifesto in 2017 and subsequently on that of the Labour Party in 2019, who pledged to trim the standard workweek to 32 hours within a decade. Last year, ex-UK Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and a group of left-wing European politicians wrote a letter to heads of government including Joe Biden, Boris Johnson, and Angela Merkel, urging them to adopt a 4-day week to “save jobs, rethink working patterns, and reduce energy consumption.” The letter argues that “shorter hours have been used throughout history as a way of responding to economic crises” and could be key once again to the pandemic recovery. A recent report by workplace thinktank Autonomy echoes this sentiment, concluding that a sharp upturn in unemployment could thusly be averted. In Japan, a country whose notorious work ethic has percolated into the language — the word ‘karoshi’ describing death from overwork — lawmakers are debating a proposal to grant employees a 3-day weekend for their well-being. New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern informally stated she was open to the idea as a way to boost the economy while sealed off from the wider world.

Naturally, there are sceptics. In the UK’s 2019 general election, with the 4-day workweek on the agenda, Labour suffered its worst defeat since 1935, and the Green party lured only 2.7% into voting their way. In Spain, industry leaders branded the Más País trial “madness” in the midst of the country’s worst recession since the Civil War, a common retort being: “Getting out of this crisis requires more work, not less.” Aside from the extra cost, increasing staff handovers during a week raises information transferral costs. The biggest problem to arise in trials so far has been ensuring continuity and quality of service: the aforementioned Utah program was ultimately scrapped due to slumping customer satisfaction on Fridays when all employees had run for the hills. Acquiring and developing the technology, such as chatbots and AI-powered websites, to overcome these difficulties comes at a substantial cost. Pessimism also resounds from some corners of academia, as Holger Schäfer, a labour market analyst at the German Economic Institute in Cologne, claims: “Employees perform a task more efficiently the more they’ve done it,” adding “I don’t believe there are really going to be productivity gains coming from shorter working time.”

Íñigo Errejón Galván: leading the charge in Spain – José Luis Roca

Judgement Day

All things considered, the time for tentatively embracing a 4-day working week appears to be nigh. Far from stemming from generosity, a bittersweet blend of religious custom, alcohol, capitalism and crisis secured the first 5-day weeks. Technology and an array of post-materialist concerns may well cut that down to four. Although widely supported by survey data and responses, further trials are evidently necessary to firmly establish applicability to a broad range of professions, industries, countries and regional economic environments. The concept is likely to remain a consideration of developed countries for the time being, as the developing prove averse to cost-effectiveness differentials between them (with a select few actively engaged in a race in the opposite direction). Nonetheless, mounting evidence and cravings for a post-pandemic resurgence may just overcome political inertia and raise the bar of working standards sooner rather than later.


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