The four-day work week: A struggle for more time

Sunday on la grande jatte
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The historical struggle for free time cropped up again this week as the TUC called for a four-day working week for UK workers. Is it about time businesses shared the wealth from new technology in the form of additional time off, or will this lead to a plunge in productivity?

By this point, the weekend feels like an inviolable right. For many of us at least, those who are salaried, non-shift workers, it’s a fixture. We always, nominally at least, have Saturday and Sunday off.

Of course, if you have kids - or a busy social life - then what constitutes ‘off’ is open to conjecture. But while two days of wrangling a toddler isn’t necessarily rest, those people would still see the weekend as a chance to spend time with loved ones.

The weekend, or, the ‘week-end’ as it was called when it entered the popular imagination, is relatively new. One of the first documented uses of the term is in the British academic quarterly Notes and Queries.

An 1879 issue noted that:“In Staffordshire, if a person leaves home at the end of his week’s work on the Saturday afternoon to spend the evening of Saturday and the following Sunday with friends at a distance, he is said to be spending his week-end at So-and-so.”

At that time, the work week ended on Saturday. The ‘week-end’ referred to the Saturday evening and the Sabbath. That said, the phenomenon of ‘Saint Monday’ was common: a long but unofficial tradition of absenteeism where workers took Mondays off work to recover from their weekend bacchanal.

The 19th and 20th century were periods of intense labour struggle, too. Central to that struggle was the reduction of time spent at work. “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will!” the famous labour slogan declared.

History repeats itself

Cotton mill

This historical struggle for free time cropped up again this week during the TUC’s annual congress. “In the 19th century, unions campaigned for an eight-hour day. In the 20th century, we won the right to a two-day weekend and paid holidays,” said Frances O’Grady, the TUC’s general secretary.

“So, for the 21st century, let’s lift our ambition again. I believe that in this century we can win a four-day working week, with decent pay for everyone. It’s time to share the wealth from new technology, not allow those at the top to grab it for themselves.”

According to Kate Bell, the TUC’s head economist, the ambition for a shorter week is realistic. Bell noted that the TUC is acutely aware of the UK’s prolonged productivity slump, but pointed to the substantial promises being made around new technology.

“We’re being promised lots of productivity improvements by new technology, and of course they haven’t turned up yet,” Bell told AccountingWEB. There are government estimates suggesting that AI and autonomous tech could boost the economy by £200bn a year.

“If we do get that productivity boost to the economy, how should we use that to make workers’ lives better? From looking at our history, one of the ways has been shorter working hours.”

We don’t want to say Monday to Thursday is the correct working week for everyone.”

According to the TUC, what productivity gains there have been in the past forty years haven’t been fairly shared with workers. The labour share of income has declined, and inequality has widened. “What we’re asking is: ‘what would be a better way to share the proceeds from growth?’” said Bell.

The TUC demand foresees the shorter working week being phased in by the end of the century. But in other countries, it’s already happening. This year, IG Metall, Germany’s largest union, won the right to a 28-hour working week and a 4.3% pay rise.

Before heading into the negotiations, IG Metall’s president identified the union’s priorities clearly: “The value of time and the value of money will carry equal weight.” The TUC is more flexible on implementation, however.

“We want to think about this carefully,” said Bell. “We want the government to set up a future of work commission and we want unions and experts to help define how technology might be used to benefit workers. What we don’t want is to be prescriptive. We don’t want to say Monday to Thursday is the correct working week for everyone.

“We recognise the changing nature of the economy. Not everyone works 9 - 5, Monday to Friday. But it’s certainly worth thinking about. The promise of technological progress, after all, used to be more leisure, more time with our families, more time with our friends.”

In theory and practice

Retro office

AccountingWEB stalwart Tom123, an FD at a medium sized manufacturer, isn’t necessarily against the TUC’s idea. But he has some reservations. “With regard to the four-day week, I guess it depends,” he said.

“I think the TUC were wanting the same money for fewer hours. I can't really see that flying for us, but then in the SME sector we can see our MD/owner at the end of the office, and the staff (without being necessarily privy to anything confidential) would generally know he is not ostentatiously wealthy (à la Mike Ashley).

“I can see a distinction opening up between people who could decide to work from home, compared to others with more transactional work that are somewhat chained to the desks. Having said that, a lot of our work is not specific to a particular day, so some element of compression of hours could work.” But, he added, “the manufacturing side would have to continue over the five days, in my view”.

‘Compression of hours’, as Tom calls it, is indeed one way to afford a four-day week. That’s four days working 10 hour shifts. Hours worked don’t reduce - but the days spent working do.

The 55-person digital agency LAB is trialling a variation of this at the moment, apportioning the days off to remain open five days a week. “We’ve given each department its own autonomy to ensure there’s cover for the five days,” said LAB’s finance director Rachel Howe.

LAB’s employees can still work a five-day week if they’d like - or, they can work a four-day week where they still work their 37.5 hours, but they work it into four longer days. Pay isn’t affected. Howe’s assessment of the four-day week is positive - both personally and professionally.

“Revenue forecasts for the trial period look good. There’s no impact on revenue as far as I can see,” said Howe. And as for her extra day off? “I’m training for a marathon so I’m using my Friday to do my long run.”

The added sense of freedom and ownership over your life and just time – it’s something that you’ll never get back.”

As LAB’s trial begins, another one ended on the other side of the world. In 2015, Treehouse, an education startup based in Oregon, made waves by moving to a four day week. At the time, the company’s CFO Michael Watson was optimistic.

“The added sense of freedom and ownership over your life and just time – it’s something that you’ll never get back,” he told AccountingWEB then. Three years later, the company has reverted to a five day week.

Returning to the five day week isn’t a permanent decision, Watson said. “We did a layoff related to the timing of a funding round. It’s just didn’t seem appropriate to continue to offer that given the context.”

The scheme was also becoming a “distraction”, he added. “It’s all the press would ever talk about, and internally we were getting embroiled in overly philosophical conversations of what the four-day week consist of.”

Despite ending it, Watson still views the four-day week positively. “It was an amazing perk,” he said. “The intangible benefits of a four-day week are real.” If it were to come back, he mooted, Treehouse would perhaps opt to formalise it, rather than the informal agreement that governed it previously.

“If we bring it back, we would have to turn it into a policy. It’s something we’d start temporarily if teams are hitting their goals, as an incentive, maybe in the summers.”

Less hours, same pay

Oscar Wilde

According to Aidan Harper, a campaigner for the 4 Day Week Campaign, “It’s not just about having a day off”, it’s about “a reduction of working hours” too.

The concerns over the reduced work time, he said, is like “history repeating itself”. “It’s exactly the same concerns people had when we introduced the weekend or the eight-hour workday. But the world didn’t collapse in on itself then - and it won’t now.”

There’s the economic arguments, too. “The biggest cause of sick leave in the UK is work-related stress and the biggest cause of work-related stress is over work. According to Harper, there’s a crisis of overwork in the UK: our work is making us sick.

“Not only is that a human catastrophe, from the economic point of view it’s detrimental to our ability to work. The UK is in a productivity slump - and one of the reasons is the way we work and the hours we put in.”

A look at OECD statistics does not show a positive correlation between working longer hours and an economy performing better.

A look at OECD statistics does not show a positive correlation between working longer hours and an economy performing better. In fact, the statistics suggest the reverse: the fewer hours a country works, the better it performs economically. In terms of GDP per hour worked, the UK lags behind Scandinavian countries and Germany, both nations with shorter working days and robust economies.

“These countries work less hours than we do and yet have far higher levels of wealth per person. They’re stronger economies, they’re more productive than us and people are wealthier,” said Harper.

“The country that works the longest hours in Europe is Greece. What direction should we be going into as an economy? Are we looking to Greece or Germany?”

Work, paid and unpaid

Woman at work

Her extra day off hasn’t been all marathon training, added LAB’s Howe. “I hate to say it, but I have also caught up on chores,” she said. Alongside her marathon training, the day off has created time for more quotidian concerns, too. “It allows me to have the Saturday and Sunday as free days.”

Howe’s point is an important one. An extra day off isn’t about idleness, it’s about all of the unpaid labour we do over and above our waged work. One of the major arguments for a shorter week is that it gives more time outside waged work to perform other work.

For women, who still bear the brunt of this unpaid labour, an extra day is particularly important. But for everyone, too: it’s an extra day to complete the chores and care responsibilities that so often eat into our free time.

All of the toddler wrangling, shopping, cleaning and the emotional labour we perform is work, too. So perhaps all we need is a bit more time. To rest and, indeed, to work.

About Francois Badenhorst

Francois

I'm AccountingWEB's business editor. Feel free to get in touch with comments, tips, scoops or irreverent banter. 

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13th Sep 2018 10:09

I think we should do 1 day on 1 day off, with 15 days holiday and weekends cancelled.

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to SJH-ADVDIPMA
13th Sep 2018 10:53

That's off piste, I'll give you that. But with the start-stop cadence of your plan, you never get the rest. If you get what I mean?

Would you be against a straight four day week?

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13th Sep 2018 10:10

Three days off. I would be bored.

There is an argument that we all work less hard than we did in the last century so we are already benefiting

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to pauljohnston
13th Sep 2018 10:54

Well, not really - signs are we're working longer hours. And workplace stress is up (along with all the negative effects that brings along).

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to Francois Badenhorst
13th Sep 2018 14:06

Francois Is that just your perception or do you have any research to validate the claim we are working longer hours? I looked at the ONS table for Average actual hours worked for 'full time' workers. In the 3 months to Mar-May 1992 it was 38.1 hours and the most recent stats for the 3 months to June 2018 it was 37.1 hours.

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By Matrix
to killer33
13th Sep 2018 20:40

And how much of this time was wasted on phones/surfing?

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to killer33
14th Sep 2018 10:12

So it goes up and down, though. It's by no means on a trajectory towards less hours. Both the ONS and the OECD show an increase in average hours actually worked since a low 2011. Given the tech and automation gains we've had since then, doesn't that seem odd?

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to Francois Badenhorst
14th Sep 2018 11:43

Since the crash of 2008 there has been negligible growth in the output per worker in the UK compared to any other decade in recent history. I'm probably less productive than I was 10 years ago as I didn't get distracted by reading and commenting on articles on social media in 2008.

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13th Sep 2018 11:06

Proven fact that part-time workers are more productive than full time and also happier. Working less hours would give me the freedom to actually have some "time-off". Housework, caring duties, shopping etc - my weekends are full and Monday morning comes around only too soon.

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13th Sep 2018 14:02

I’d be all for a 4 day week, or even push it to a 3 day week. We should be using developments in technology to make humanity happier, and most of us are happier when we are not working.

However I think this is gong to take a massive change in how society thinks.

How many employers would scoff at the idea of paying their workforce the same amount for a days less work? A high proportion I would imagine. I’d wager that many would feel that any time saving obtained by new technology should result in employees fulfilling other duties in this time, or may even be an opportunity to thin the herd. Granted, not all will think like this, but the majority will.

The problem is we are a very selfish society. Why should we give something to someone when they have not “earned” it. We want something of equal value in exchange for what we give.

With technology and AI being heralded as the workers of tomorrow, there is no doubt a 4 day working week, or less, is entirely possible.

In a hypothetical future where every role is performed by a machine, and other machines maintain and build those machines, there is no longer any work for people to perform. So what do we do in order to get the things that we need to live(food, power, a home)?

What system will there be for distributing resources that are being produced by machines, with no input from humans?

Based on current attitudes (just look at income disparity across the world), it is going to take a massive shift to get to a point where things (food, warmth, homes) are given out to people, with nothing received in return.

So whilst a shorter working week would be great, I highly doubt the society we currently live in will opt for it.

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to Lone_Wolf
14th Sep 2018 09:18

Hi Lone_Wolf - and thank you for your thoughtful comment.

Completely agree with you. I find it hard to believe that some people aren't in principle committed to a shorter working week. The debate, surely, is about the practicalities - not whether it's a good thing. The vast, vast majority of us - as you note - are at our happiest when we don't work. And policy should be designed for the majority. Workaholics would be free, as before, to work longer hours.

I suspect many employers would scoff, you're right. But as Aidan Harper pointed out: they scoffed when we moved to an eight hour day; they scoffed when we got the weekend.

You point to an incredibly important dichotomy for our society, too. Who will reap the benefits of automation and AI? It's certainly possible that many bosses could use it as a chance 'to thin the herd' and eventually lead us to a sort of tech-feudalism. But it's also possible that we get our priorities straight and fulfil Keynes' prediction of a 15-hour week.

As for the idea that we're a 'selfish society' - well, I'm generally careful to attribute any qualities - good or bad - to people. We're complicated and our motivations are mixed. We - 21st century people - are profoundly estranged from our human natures. Our vital drives and tendencies are stunted.

The power of a shorter week is not only that it's cool and good - it would give us more time to flourish personally. When people are rested, more free, better developed, you'll likely see them manifest an altogether different nature.

You're right - the society we live in now is entirely unfit to deal with automation, mass displacement, alienation, climate crises, and inequality. But this society wasn't always here. It was built - and it can be rebuilt, too.

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14th Sep 2018 09:22

An increase in productivity of 20% is realistic using our services. Sometimes we discover accountancy practices that are involved in fixing their IT issues which then becomes a considerable distraction. Perhaps they think they are saving money in this way?

By using our expertise the 4 day week without any loss in productivity is definitely achievable!

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14th Sep 2018 09:28

We have been here far to often, in the 1950's and 1960's it was estimated by the year 2000 we would only be working two or three days a week, we would have so much free time on our hands we would not know what to do with it all, mind you they also said due to nuclear power, electricity would cost next to nothing, whatever happened to these nutters making such predictions.

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By Maslins
17th Sep 2018 09:50

To my mind there's two very different scenarios:

1) Office hours still deemed to be 5 days (Mon-Fri), but each staff member only works 4 of them. This would be a pain for employers, juggling which staff members are in which day, and clients getting grumpy that inevitably when they contact the person they want to speak to isn't in.

2) Office hours are accepted by the general population to be 4 days, (say) Mon-Thu. Hence clients stop contacting on Fridays as they consider it no different to how they currently consider a Sat/Sun, unlikely to get a response. Yes there's still an element of trying to get what was 5 days worth of work done in 4 days, but I don't think that would be as big an issue.

Me personally, (1) would be a pain, (2) would be ace...though I'd ideally make Wednesdays a day off. 3 day weekend just means the first day back is worse! A 2 day weekend then a 1 day midweek break I'd love!

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to Maslins
17th Sep 2018 10:50

You are the Boss, why not give option 2 a go?

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By Maslins
to killer33
17th Sep 2018 13:31

Cos I can't change the mindset of the UK population. Yes we could do this ourselves, and it probably wouldn't be too bad, but I think some clients getting in touch on Tues eve/Weds, and not getting a reply until Thurs morning would be peeved.

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