A four day week – is it workable?

Person sat at a desk in an officeDr Harry Pitts, University of Bristol Business School

Over the past decade, the issue of a four-day working week has been widely discussed as one way of escaping the broken relationship between work, welfare, and ceaseless economic growth. More recently, the pandemic has opened up the basic demand for a better work-life balance for those burnt-out by the exhaustion of remote working.

A number of pilots and studies have showed the policy’s positive effect on productivity and wellbeing. However, some of the evidence cited in support of the measure remains questionable, and its implementation at a national level in a country like the UK seems riddled with obstacles.

So: does the four-day week represent a pragmatic proposal for the near-future of work, or an impossible pipedream?

It’s not all Zoom and gloom

The demand for economy-wide reduced working hours has been a recurring theme of trade union organizing and bargaining but today, the demand for improved working hours is arising from non-union activists, think tanks and younger professionals whose experience of work has been precarious during the pandemic.

For the latter group, the pandemic saw a long-standing extension of working hours peak, remote working intensifying, and domination of devices in the home. Teamed with the idea of a ‘right to disconnect’, the proposal of a four-day week presents professionals with the opportunity to address spiralling white-collar working hours and help preserve and expand much-needed free time with friends and family.

However, it is important not to overstate the proportion of workers who find themselves in the same Zoomed-out position. Think, for instance, of the key or essential workers who have continued to leave home and work on-site or in-person in a variety of different sectors over the course of the pandemic. The project-based or on-call character of this work make a radical reconfiguration of working hours hard to envisage, whatever its merits.

Person on an online Zoom call

Moreover, underemployment – where workers desire more hours, or more stable hours, than they can access at present – has been a major trend of the UK labour market in recent years.

Recent research by think-tank the Social Market Foundation found that, whilst many ‘white collar’ workers welcome a four-day week, employees in undervalued, under protected sectors like care and hospitality desired more hours, not less.

Many employees working in these sectors have to piece together working weeks from numerous precarious or part-time contracts, with little by way of rights or security. For these workers, enforcing employment rights and strengthening power and voice in the workplace would arguably be more of a pressing priority than a reduction in working hours.

Even for those professionals most keen on a four-day week, a shorter contractual week might not live up to expectations. Caught between the domineering management style characteristic of contemporary corporate life and our inner bosses compelling greater productivity and effort from within, could a four-day week flip back to five with one day’s less pay?

The constant cycle of deadlines associated with project-based working could also force workers to exhaust themselves completing what was formerly five days of work in four, intensifying labour in the process.

The fruits of struggles yet to come

In spite of its credible vision of more free time, for a four day working week to work, foundations would need to be in place that are not there at present.

For instance, many of the worries about work intensification raised above would be addressed were workers in a better position of power to be able to dictate the terms and times of work in the first place.

The question here is precisely who the demand for a four-day week is addressed to, and from where the demand arises. There is a danger it becomes the whim of reforming managers and governments rather than something compelled by workers themselves.

Supporters claim that, if managed correctly, issues around overemployment and underemployment, could be addressed by the redistribution of work that a four-day week makes possible. A reduction in the workloads of the overworked would facilitate new opportunities for those in search of more hours. But this assumes that after decades of underinvestment in skills and lifelong learning that we have a workforce capable of adapting to those opportunities as they emerge.

Solving this requires long-term interventions in supply, through retraining and reskilling, and demand, refocusing the economy towards more skilled jobs.

This is not to mention the difficulties of implementing a four-day week in globally integrated industries with close-run production and supply chains where clients and customers will be sensitive to any shift in expectations around the time taken for a job. This would be a specific issue in the large, unionised manufacturers where such work hours reductions would be most likely negotiated first.

All these issues call for a careful, coordinated approach to the four-day week that is collectively bargained for between labour, capital and the state. This would likely proceed on a sector-by-sector basis with a mixture of short-, medium- and long-term targets around skills, job creation and productivity. Unfortunately, the UK has simply not sustained the kind coordinated economy capable of pulling this off. Compare it to, say, Germany, and the difference is clear.

In mid-twentieth century Britain, time, wage and productivity bargains were negotiated in a tripartite fashion between unions, business and government. Back then, productivity was the basis for work-time reductions rather than, as now, work-time reductions being seen as a means to greater productivity.

But the virtuous circle of worker power, productive investment and productivity gains that underpinned that social and industrial compromise is no more, with all three declining in an age of financialisation and deindustrialisation. This makes it hard to argue for work time reduction as a response to rising productivity.

Emulating the German kurzarbeit scheme for short-hours working at times of crisis, there were some signs that the UK was seeking to resurrect tripartite bargaining with the development and introduction of the furlough scheme in the wake of COVID-19. In scenes reminiscent of long post-war period, the Chancellor stood on the steps of 11 Downing Street flanked by the Trades Union Congress and the Confederation of British Industry.

In this context, many consider the pandemic a perfect turning point to push proposals like the four-day week. And, indeed, the signs are that COVID-19 could recreate the conditions for the kind of industrial coordination needed to pull off such schemes.

For the reasons given above, the four-day week may seem impractical in the short term. But with talk of ‘building back better’ and ‘levelling up’ backed up by a more interventionist national industrial policy across the political spectrum, the medium-to-long term picture offers proponents some measure of hope.

Dr Harry Pitts is a political economist and critical theorist in the Work, Employment, Organisation & Public Policy group at the University of Bristol Business School and he is the Theme Champion for Work Futures. Harry also co-edits the Bristol University Press online magazine Futures of Work.

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