A four-day week is an essential step forward

The pandemic has taught us that it is better to work smarter, not longer, and it is time to seriously consider introducing a shorter working week

Joe O’Connor is director of campaigning with Fórsa, and the chairperson of Four Day Week Ireland. This article was first published in the Business Post on Sunday 4th October 2020.

THE DISRUPTION to societal and workplace norms by the Covid-19 pandemic has illustrated the potential for very different models of work to both workers and employers. One of those models is the four-day week, and if the results of a recent survey are anything to go by, there is significant public appetite, worker support and employer openness for the concept.

More than two in three respondents to the survey, which was carried out by Behaviour & Attitudes, believe that a four-day week is an achievable ambition in the medium term. More than three-quarters support the government actively exploring its introduction, while around half of employers think that trialling a four-day week in their own workplace setting is feasible.

Since the launch of the Four Day Week Ireland campaign last year, we have been advocating for a new model of work, one which measures outputs and productivity as opposed to time spent in the office or at the desk.

Perpetual Guardian, the New Zealand trust firm, introduced a four-day working week for its workforce in 2018. It articulates this concept as the 100-80-100 model: 100 per cent of the productivity, 80 per cent of the time, with 100 per cent of the pay.

Closer to home, ICE Group, the Galway-based recruitment and training company, moved its 45 full-time staff on to a four-day working week last year with no loss of pay. The firm has reported more focused, energised and motivated employees, coupled with a 27 per cent increase in productivity.

This should come as no great surprise. Numerous academic studies, including from John Pencavel of Stanford University in 2014, have shown that there is no correlation between working long hours and greater productivity.

In fact, according to OECD figures, some of Europe’s most productive economies such as Denmark and the Netherlands have some of the shortest average working hours. Countries with longer average working hours such as the UK and Greece, meanwhile, score among the poorest when it comes to productivity.

False narrative

Despite this, in some segments of the Irish economy we have seen the development of a corrosive “work-first, always-on” culture and a false narrative that working long hours is some kind of badge of honour. This should be challenged head on.

To be effective in improving living standards for workers, working time reduction needs to be coupled with greater control over working hours and a “right to disconnect”. As we’ve experienced during the pandemic, the ability to switch off outside of working hours becomes even more critical when your workplace is your home.

In addition to the productivity potential of the four-day week for business, this is an idea that can deliver transformative societal benefits. Working less has been shown to improve the physical and mental health and well-being of workers.

It would also enable people to spend more time with their families, learn new skills, have more time for rest, leisure and socialising, and be able to give back to their local communities.

Moving to a four-day working week also has the potential to make a huge contribution to our collective fight against climate change. Research from Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden projects that reducing the average working week to four days (or equivalent hours) would deliver a reduction in carbon emissions of 16 per cent by cutting down on commuting and energy use in buildings.

It could also make a significant difference in terms of gender equality. Reduced working time would enable men to take on more caring responsibilities in the home, which in turn would help remove barriers to women achieving senior positions in work.

The case for a four-day working week is not that we should adopt a “one size fits all” approach in every sector and setting. Just as the nine-to-five, five-day week is the standard work arrangement across the economy today, it is of course not the only one.

There will continue to be the need for different types of flexibility for both workers and employers in order to ensure that working time reduction across society can co-exist with ensuring that essential services in both the public and private sectors can continue to operate over five, six and in some cases even seven days. This will require strong management, clever rostering and worker buy-in.

When the British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1930 that advancements in technology and productivity would make a 15-hour work week possible within a century, he could scarcely have imagined the kind of progress we have experienced since then. Despite this, working hours have remained largely stagnant in most advanced western economies in recent decades, during a period when overall economic productivity has grown exponentially.

Scepticism about the four-day week in many ways mirrors the historical arguments against the five-day week. Many employers at the time maintained that our economy could not cope if we only worked five days a week, and insisted that the weekend was an unaffordable luxury.

Strong trade union organisation and collective bargaining won the weekends that we take for granted today, and it will be essential to delivering this next great step forward.

The four-day week may have seemed like a radical notion for many not too long ago. But more and more workers and businesses are now seeing that it is not only achievable, but is a reasonable, rational response to the challenges our society faces today. It’s time to work smarter, not longer.

Joe O’Connor is director of campaigning with Fórsa, and the chairperson of Four Day Week Ireland. This article was first published in the Business Post on Sunday 4th October 2020.