(5 mins read)
Some time ago my son had a moment of reflection after he observed that we, as a family, spend much more time together during weekends. He asked me why we cannot work for 2 days while the weekends last for 5 days? When he asked me this question, I started laughing; then, I praised his observation skills, analytical thinking and the ability to make insightful conclusions. I told him that one day he might become the next prime minster and he would be able to propose such an interesting idea. We have not been waiting too long…
What exactly is the idea?
There are many discussions about moving towards a 4-day work week. Our weekends would be expanded to 3 days. Employees would keep the same salaries and benefits. We may say that this idea is innovative and unique, however if we analyse what has happened in the past, we understand that the 4-day work week idea is part of a long process, which accelerated recently. The average industrial worker used to work 100 hours per week; weekends were introduced about 100 years ago.
Why is it possible?
All of these changes to the work week have been driven by an increase of productivity, which was a result of an improved educational system, higher skills and competencies of employees. Innovations in technology contributed massively to the increase in productivity. New farming methods, industrial revolution, automation and these days, robots and artificial intelligence are key milestones during the long and continuous process of improving efficiency. However, there is one important element now which differs from similar changes that happened before. It looks like the pace of current changes, like working from home, automation of non-cognitive intense work, accelerated recently. In the past, we had decades to change and adapt; now, we have years – or sometimes months! – to implement new technologies and ways of working. It is estimated that robots and technology based on AI may eliminate about 500 million jobs!!! We are talking about some admin work, routine tasks, vehicle drivers or… Of course, new jobs will be created, especially around wellness, social interactions, emotions; however, it will take a bit of time to adjust to that.
What do people think about the 4-day work week?
Some research institutes asked people about their opinions in relation of a 4-day work week. It is not surprising that respondents loved this idea; who doesn’t want to get a 20% salary increase? Working 32 hours instead of 40 hours for the same salary and benefits? Having 3-day weekends? I am not surprised with the outcome. It is like asking people whether they want to be “rich and healthy or poor and sick?”. Seriously, however, it could have a significant impact on employee satisfaction. Mental health problems, pandemic-induced stress levels could be lowered and the number of cases of burnout could shrink. Moving to a 3-day weekend would have a real impact on people’s work-life balance which has been negatively impacted by working from home. People would have more flexibility on where, when and how to work. In a nutshell, the idea of ‘work less and rest more’ was very well received by employees.
What is the employers’ view?
Even before the pandemic, many companies initiated many ideas to improve work-life balance. We experienced summer hours (finishing work on Fridays during at summer at 12pm or 1pm), work-from-home Fridays, no-meeting days, etc. During the pandemic, some companies decided to go directly to a 4-day work week. What they observed was surprising and revealing: productivity increase and absenteeism shrunk by 30%. Why has this happened? During lockdowns, we had to work from home; there was no need to travel to and from the office in the morning and evening. We saved lots of time on commuting. If we travel 45 minutes each morning and evening, we ‘gain back’ 7.5 hours weekly; one full day of work! So, it is clear that even for employees, the 4-day work week brings lots of positive impact.
I am sure that many of you have heard about the plans in Spain. There are ideas to implement the 4-day work week on a national level. The working week will be decreased to 32 hours. The plan is to start it as a 3-year long trial, with additional support from government to employers. For sure it is the right direction for the work week, but the question is if the timing is right and if the Spanish economy can afford it? Spain’s GDP shrunk by -11% in 2020. Actually, economists say that when you want to exit a recession, you actually need to work more – not less! The Spanish productivity is the second lowest in the European Union. Unemployment in Spain is 17%, with a 25% rate of unemployment in the youth population. The average unemployment with the other 27 EU countries is 7.3%. Having said that, there is an obvious question for Spain: is this the right time to implement the 4-day work week? Or maybe this is the way they wanted to fight their problems with unemployment?
Let me be a bit provocative at the end: the Chinese economy has been on a permanent growth path over the past 30 years. What is interesting, there is no discussion in China about working 4 days now. They work according to the 996 rule. It means from 9am till 9pm for 6 days. I am not saying that we need to work like people in China, however if a country within a block of countries wants to be competitive on the global market, we need to discuss every single idea before any implementation carefully.
Hopefully, we will enjoy 4-day work weeks and 3-day weekends soon and it will be implemented in a smart and reasonable way.
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