With the coronavirus pandemic upending regular life and pushing up unemployment, employers around the world are trying to adopt flexible workplace models that keep costs low and productivity high, while ensuring employees’ safety.
Even as work from home (WFH) becomes the new normal, some are considering more radical and long-term options such as the four-day work week.
Several world leaders and trade unions, too, have proposed a four-day week to help secure jobs. In August this year, Germany’s largest trade union IG Metall pushed for a four-day working week to prevent mass layoffs and salary cuts.
Meanwhile, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Adern and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev are among the many world leaders pushing for a shift to a four-day working week.
Compressed work schedules have been the subject of many studies, which have pointed out a significant increase in both productivity and work-life balance.
What is the four-day work week?
A four-day work week is not merely a compressed schedule where employees are expected to squeeze the same number of working hours into four days instead of five. Instead, it entails both a shortened work week as well as fewer hours for all full-time employees.
In its most evolved form, an employee will be paid the same amount despite clocking fewer hours every week. Several studies have shown both workplace productivity and employee satisfaction go up considerably under a more compressed schedule, according to a Washington Post report.
Several top executives, including Google co-founder Larry Page, have been in favour of the four-day work week.
Why is it gaining popularity during the pandemic?
The four-day work week model is gaining ground as employers struggle to stagger attendance and ensure social distancing in offices.
As unemployment continues to spike, the shorter week helps work be divided among more people in need of jobs. It also reduces the burden on employers, bringing down rent, electricity bills and other costs.
Is it a new phenomenon?
No, the idea of shortening the working week is not new. In fact, the 40-hour, five-day week itself is a relatively recent concept, dating back to the Great Depression of the 1930s as a way of saving thousands of jobs by cutting down the amount of working hours in the week. Almost a century later, we are faced with a similar situation yet again.
Since the 20th century, scholars have predicted a gradual decline in total work hours as productivity increased. Economist John Maynard Keynes in 1928 said that the work week could be reduced to a mere 15 hours within a century.
During the 1920s and 1930s, industrialists like Henry Ford began drastically reducing work hours at a time when employees on an average worked around 10 to 16 hours a day. Ford found that 40-hour work weeks actually resulted in a surge in productivity. He also realised that with increased leisure time, people would get more time to buy products.
In an interview with a magazine called World’s Work in 1926, Ford said, “Leisure is an indispensable ingredient in a growing consumer market because working people need to have enough free time to find uses for consumer products, including automobiles.”
Years later, in the midst of the global financial crisis in 2008, Germany introduced a short-term work scheme called ‘Kuzarbeit’ that reduced employees’ working hours instead of laying them off. Under this, workers received 60 per cent of their pay for the hours they did not work, while receiving full pay for the hours that they did work.
During the UK general election last year, the Labour Party said it could introduce a four-day, 32-hour working week with no loss of pay within a decade. However the move was slammed by conservatives, who said it would have a devastating impact on the country’s economy and “turn back the clock”.
More recently, Microsoft tested the four-day week at its offices in Japan and found that its employees were not only happier but also significantly more productive. As part of the ‘Work-Life Choice Challenge Summer 2019’, the company’s 2,300-person workforce was given five Fridays off in a row without cutting pay.
Apart from increased productivity, Microsoft said that employees took 25 per cent less time off and electricity use also went down by 23 per cent. At least 92 per cent of the total workforce said they enjoyed the shorter week.
Who are the world leaders pushing for a four-day week?
In a video uploaded on Facebook in May, New Zealand’s Adern urged companies in the country to adopt a four-day week in order to stimulate domestic tourism and help the industry recover amidst the pandemic.
“I’d really encourage people to think about that if you’re an employer and in a position to do so,” she said.
In Ireland, a coalition of unions, activists and businesses, which calls itself the Four Day Week Ireland campaign, is urging the government to take a look at new ways of working. The body believes that the coronavirus pandemic and the shock it caused to the country’s economy offers the most opportune time to give the new model a shot.
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A recent survey conducted by the campaign found that three out of four members of the public are in favour of the four-day work week.
Meanwhile, Russia’s PM Medvedev, too, has suggested that a four-day week can help workers overcome both burnout syndrome and chronic fatigue, the Moscow Times reported.