Will flexi-time avoid a 4 day week?
At the moment the four-day week is only workable in the most progressive companies and when business is smooth. But with pressure increasing for it to become mandatory - what happens if it does? Will workers exhaust themselves cramming all their work into four days? What about workers on zero-hours contracts, who’ll lose 20% of their income?
If it’s left to the market, we could see a new dualism emerge, with some workers getting a four-day week while Uber drivers and Amazon packers keep working longer, more unpredictable hours with no contracts or benefits, just to survive. Is the four-day week an ideal to aspire to, or a violation of the right to work?
In 1868, when the TUC held its first meeting, the average British worker worked 62 hours a week; today, including part-timers, it’s just 32. Trades unions fought for these reductions.
However, Brits still work the longest hours in Europe - but among the seven leading economies (France, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Sweden) we’re 16% less productive than average and, perhaps relatedly, the most enthusiastic for a four-day week, with 63% in favour.
History has shown that productivity rises when working hours fall, from Henry Ford’s introduction of the five-day, 40-hour week in 1926 to Kellogg’s introduction of the six-hour day in 1930, which reduced factory accidents by 41%.
The four-day week will increase time for housework, childcare, and elder care; this disproportionately affects women, who still average 26 hours per week of unpaid domestic labour, and do 74% of all childcare. It will also give people more time to inform themselves and time for civic activities, like setting up a community land trust, union membership, involvement with the PTA or residents’ association, and taking part in protests.
However, historical drivers of shorter working hours, like union pressure, legislation, and innovative employers – are weak today, and a four-day week would be more complicated in jobs like teaching and medicine, where professionals are already stretched too thin.
A possible alternative could be fully flexible working hours, where workers will have the option to make their own four-day weeks - working 10 hours a day, but cutting out one commute per week. Whether this will appeal enough to make a workable alternative remains to be seen.
The first companies to transition for a four-day week will have a great advantage in attracting and retaining employees - until it becomes standard - but we’ll only truly be able to measure the success of the four-day week when it’s been in force for several years.