Why the Four-Day Week is Not the Answer
#WF26 Tweaking the 'five-day week' will not help organisations, workers or society. More robust and radical approaches to work design are needed.
There’s a growing movement towards a four-day working week.
‘Less Work, Same Pay’ anyone?
But before we jump in too quickly to the three-day weekend, this article provides some challenges. What problems does it solve for the organisation, the worker and society? A clue might be in the origin of five-day week…
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"And on the seventh day God rested from all His works."
Ever wondered why our lives are organised around the seven-day week?
The year marks one revolution of the Earth around the Sun.
But no natural phenomenon occurs every seven days.
4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, it was believed that there were seven planets in the Solar System.
So the reason we have 10 am Monday Zoom Project Meetings every seventh day is not for a particular business reason - it’s because of the Babylonians.
Bobbins to the Six-Day Working Week
In England in the 1800s, wooden bobbins* similar to those in the main image were used to manage piles of thread and yarn. Before the factories, workers made dresses, shoes, and matchboxes in their kitchens or bedrooms - Remote Work is not new at all.
Bobbins were pivotal in allowing workers to move from their homes to textile factories where it was common to work 6 days a week, for 12 hours a day.
Sunday was meant to be a day to rest. But some workers partied hard on their day off and couldn’t face going to the factory on Monday morning - this was known as ‘Saint Monday’. Eventually, the factory owners negotiated a half-day on Saturday in exchange for turning up on time on Monday morning.
So somewhere between sky-gazing in ancient Mesopotamia to ‘Hangover Mondays’ in Manchester, we ended up with the five-day working week.
* the term ‘Bobbins’ means ‘not very good’ derived from the Lancashire cotton mills.
The Four-Day Week Movement
There is a movement to move from the five-day working week to four.
“reducing standard hours by a fifth but with no loss of pay”
Typical aims for moving to a four-day working week include:-
improving employee mental health and wellbeing
improving business productivity
reducing sickness and staff attrition
Organisations approach the four-day work week in a couple of ways:
(1) a flexible approach where employees choose their own time off during the week.
(2) everyone takes the same day off e.g. Friday
In Iceland, after a trial of 2,500 workers, 86% of Iceland's workforce have either moved to shorter hours for the same pay, or will gain the right to.
Researchers found that
“worker wellbeing increased across a range of indicators, from perceived stress and burnout to health and work-life balance.”
Microsoft Japan did a study and reported a productivity boost of 40%.
Henley Business School surveyed those who have implemented a Four-Day Week, which included 500 business leaders and 2000 employees.
They reported improved employee satisfaction, reduced employee sickness, and 64% reported an increase in staff productivity.
But where’s the catch?
I am supportive of improving worker conditions, more worker flexibility, raising productivity, and improving wellbeing.
I also support experimenting with new ways of working.
A strand in Workforce Futurist thinking is how we are reframing work and leisure in the Digital Age.
However, I have three main criticisms of the Four-Day Week Movement.
The dangers of moving to pre-determined organisational solutions.
Is it what the workforce wants?
The four-day week is not a progressive solution in the 21st Century.
If the Four-Day Week is the Organisational Answer, then What is the Question?
With any organisational change, there are dangers moving to a pre-determined solution, without doing the necessary analysis.
HR has some past form force-fitting pre-determined solutions onto poorly defined problems.
For example, moving rigidly to a particular 3-box HR operating model without analysing the fit with current organisational structures, capabilities, and requirements.
Another example is the vendor-led, Employee Engagement Scam – otherwise known as squeezing the lemon🍋 in a low-wage environment.
There are claims the four-day week will improve productivity, improve wellbeing, and reduce attrition. All complex issues, but which problem is being targeted exactly?
If you have a toxic workplace, where workers are leaving, productivity is low, and there are high levels of grievances - reducing working hours doesn’t make the environment any less toxic.
If the objectives are to improve mental wellness, are we saying the five-day week is harmful, and if so, why is that for your organisation?
Will The Four Day Week Work in Your Type of Organisation?
I know a 12-person consulting team who work virtually and have moved to a four-day week pretty seamlessly. However, this is more difficult if your customers expect a service seven days of the week, such as a hospital or an airport.
This kind of solution is possible but requires an overhaul of working practices, systems, scheduling, policies, and payroll. It is a massive investment in how your organisation operates, so it’s important you get the results you want.
Does The Workforce Want a Four Day Week?
Workers want increased flexibility at work so that work fits with their lives, not the other way round.
Priya wants to build up her graphic design business in the evenings, working with customers from around the world using the freelancer platform, Fiverr. She wants to work fewer hours per day.
Bob is a retired soldier, who works as a security guard for a haulage company. He likes the flexibility of a job which allows him to control the hours he works so he can care for his partner who has unpredictable periods of ill health.
Joan works at a design agency in Soho, London, she works four-days a week with 80% pay and finds it less demanding. She feels fortunate to be in a position to choose and calls it the three-day weekend.
Our Workforce has changed since the 1800s, yet many of our working practices and attitude to organising work are stuck in the bobbins textile factories.
We can now access quality 24x7 streaming entertainment.
We don’t need to endure a painful job to pay for expensive status symbols to find a mate.
Workers want more flexibility, autonomy, and equity.
We are in an era where we have had to helicopter money to hundreds of millions to pay for essential living costs.
Workers have re-priced their leisure time and expectations from work. For many the story is The Great Flourishing, not The Great Resignation which is an employer-centric term.
People will always vote for ‘less work, more pay’ or maybe even ‘20% less work, 20% less pay’. Some people will want more work with more pay.
In terms of flexible working, the four-day week is too rigid.
Some employers can offer job sharing, flexitime, and compressed hours.
How Much Work is Good for You?
“Numerous psychological studies have demonstrated that, for most people in most jobs, paid employment generates higher levels of physical health, mental health and wellbeing than unemployment or economic inactivity.” Dr Brendan Burchell et al
Some work is good for you, for social contact, meaning, structure. But how much exactly?
Research indicates that we don’t need four days a week to benefit, some people will benefit from as little as one day.
Telling workers they should ‘work Four Days a Week because it is good for you’, is straight out of the ‘Command and Control Manual’ of 1800s factories.
Workers want more autonomy, not an employer-imposed gift from management.
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Is The Four-Day Week Progressive?
Since the 1800s, the average working hours have steeply declined. As you can see from the chart, full-time work is 20 or even 30 hours less every week than in the 19th century.
One of the think-tanks promoting the four-day week, Autonomy, highlight the importance of union-led improvements to working conditions in the industrialised era. There has been undeniable progress.
In this context, moving to a four-day week is an improvement on the original bobbins six-day week of the sweatshops of 19th Century Manchester.
We might well see the four-day week becoming a popular policy in future general elections. It is more likely to be considered in the public sector, and there would be complex public pensions and taxation implications to work through.
Wage increases to help families pay for rising inflation will be welcome.
But how will this be paid for? Historically wage increases come from increasing shop prices, reduce company profits, or greater productivity.
This proposition might be popular with workers, but is it a progressive policy?
Solutions that have worked in the industrial-age aren’t necessarily going to work in less unionised service economies such as the UK.
The traditional job has given us incredible societal benefits in the past, but can’t be relied on in the future.
As work unbundles, it will reorganize into interesting new forms, some completely new and some reinventing the old.
Technology developments are enabling platform cooperatives and digital guilds, decentralised autonomous organisations DAOs. The tokenisation of assets is allowing individuals to own and monetise their IP, credentials and contributions. This should give both fans of Adam Smith and Friedrich Engels some food for thought.
Society needs solutions to improve financial security and the safety net.
Allowing people to move more confidently and securely between work contracts (🙋♀️Denmark) is part of the conversation. The discussion around Universal Basic Income will gradually include an extension of universal basic services.
Redistribution is needed in the 21st Century, but needs to be reframed to the context of the Digital Covid age, not the bobbins textile factories of the 19th Century.
Any challenge to the sanctity of Job will not get support from the unions (who are funded by unionised jobs) and traditional left parties (funded by the unions).
One hypothesis on the rise of populist politics is because of the lack of coherent vision by the left on the ‘post-job’ economy.
Policy-makers need to bypass 20th-century cures for 21st-century challenges and develop modern solutions.
Some Work Design Prompts
Instead of moving to pre-determined solutions, Work Designers are encouraged to:-
Obsess about the organisational questions and problems you want to solve.
Critically assess the best available sources of evidence for moving to new working models. Is it the Iceland study of 2500 workers, Unilever’s project in New Zealand, or Microsoft Japan, the trade union, what Andy reckons, or the views of your current workforce?
Once you've identified specific goals and objectives, determine how you will measure the effectiveness of the effort. Measuring the success of any projects will need good workforce data and tools.
Any changes to the organisation should be assessed through a workforce diversity lens. For example, how will moving to a four-day week impact part-time staff, parents, women workers, those who rely on overtime.
Rather than guessing what the workforce wants, ask them. Ask the Workforce and involve them in any changes. They are closer to the customers to assess the potential impact.
Designing Work for the 21st Century
Our society is organised along arbritary social structures from earlier times, such as days of the week. We can only change things within our sphere of control, which for some might include how we work.
The four-day week will work for some but comes from the same bossy, command-and-control thinking as the five-day week.
For organisations, the trick is to work out what will work best for your organisation given your customers, constraints, capabilities and worker needs.
If you are willing to redesign how your team works, then make sure you get the results you want. This is a lot of effort but better than having no workers to do the work, which is a risk in competitive industries if you don’t get this right.
Thanks to Joan, Gwilym, Alex, Andy, Pedro, and of course the Babylonians.
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We covered my technology journey from AI to Cobol to Blockchain, how verifiable digital credentials will change organisations, and also my best ever performance review!
Andrew, I know I'm two months late, but thanks for this. It has made me rethink some of my own thoughts on the four day workweek (feel free to absolutely ignore this, but I wrote about it here: https://thinkingahead.substack.com/p/rethinking-the-future-of-work-3). The one thing I'd note is that the loneliness epidemic is not borne out by all data. (e.g.: https://ourworldindata.org/loneliness-epidemic). Not that I deny that loneliness is a major societal problem (it absolutely is), just a data nugget.