By Harry Street
In 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes notoriously predicted that improvements in technology and productivity would eventually lead modern economies to a much shorter working week. In fact, he was bold enough to claim that advanced economies would see their workers only work 15 hours per week. However, this prediction is far from today’s reality, with the average UK working week at 35 hours – over double what Keynes had hoped for. Despite the average week remaining relatively stable over the past few decades, it is undeniable that the COVID-19 pandemic has put the conversation of work-life balance in the spotlight, with political parties and firms pushing for greater freedom and flexibility for the U.K.’s labour force. Although the vast majority of firms were forced to adopt working from home due to national lockdowns, this style of work looks like it will remain, even in a post-pandemic world. A recent YouGov study found only 40% of the U.K. labour force wants to fully return to the workplace, which may not come as a surprise, since people have reduced commute times, travel costs, and gained greater freedom. Some firms and countries want to change the way we work even more; as trials of a shorter, 4-day working week have started to arise across the globe.
Recently, Iceland completed the largest ever 4-day working week trial, as employees of the national government and the city council of Reykjavík took part in the trial between 2014-2019. The study covered a wide variety of workplaces and the average working week reduced from 40 hours to 35 hours; meaning the average working day increased to roughly 9 hours from the typical 7-hour day. Despite the decrease in number of hours worked per week, researchers who led the trial confirmed that productivity either remained the same or even improved in the majority of workplaces. Consequently, the labour force was able to enjoy higher levels of leisure without a trade-off with wages or output – something which economics textbooks could only dream of.
This trial was not the first of its kind, and many corporates and countries are continuing to test a shorter working week, hoping that it boosts productivity and the labour force’s general wellbeing. There are also many campaigns and advocates of the 4-day week, including the 4 Day Week campaign which has already received the backing of several firms.
Further studies also show that not only would a shorter working week improve employees’ productivity levels and reduce burnout, but it would also greatly reduce carbon emissions. Earlier this year, the 4 Day Week campaign released a report which highlighted that switching to the 4-day week would reduce the U.K.’s carbon footprint by 127 million tonnes per year – a 21.3% reduction in the nation’s carbon footprint. This fall in emissions is achieved primarily through the reduction in commutes, saving the workforce money and significantly reducing the number of vehicles on the road per week. Though this may come at the cost of the country’s transport economy, more than ever, a reduction in commutes could be crucial as the U.K. battles to cut its emissions dramatically over the next decade.
With all this in mind, the logical question is: if the 4-day week is so beneficial, why have so few companies adopted this new way of work?
Firstly, there are plenty of industries and workplaces where the 4-day work will simply not work, until there are significant improvements to technology and artificial intelligence. Technological advancements could help to reduce the pressure on the workforce, as tasks could be assigned to their AI counterparts. This failure of the 4-day week was seen in Utah, after Jon Huntsman, former governor of the US state, tried to redefine the working week. Although there were tangible benefits, such as a saving in energy costs and reduced carbon emissions, complaints from residents piled in due to the lack of access to key state offices on Fridays. Additionally, since the working day was long, workers with afternoon and evening commitments struggled to find a balance between work and life, undermining the very aim of the 4-day working week. These factors ultimately led to the trial being cut short a few years later.
This lack of practicality is likely to resonate with many industries, especially vital sectors such as the NHS and education. Reducing the number of days worked by healthcare workers may end up creating more pressure on the NHS; creating further strain for a service that has already found itself pushed to the limit during the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, schools and other educational institutions may find it difficult to meet demand if teachers were to work only 4 days. Unlike other industries, the education system has fixed timetables, and the lack of teaching on Fridays cannot simply be made up by improved productivity on other days and longer hours, as is the case for other workplaces. Hence, it is hard to imagine a present-day scenario where sectors such as health and education can implement a shorter working week, whilst not experiencing a harsh trade-off with the quality of service they both provide.
From the firm’s perspective, making the switch to a 4-day working week before its competitors could also deter the executive boards from authorising the initiative. It is unlikely to be smooth sailing for the first few to make the change; instead, those who wait would be able to free-ride and take advantage of the practice runs carried out before them. Despite the analysis carried out by researchers, it is difficult for individual firms to measure the exact productivity of their workforce. Therefore, although it may not be a perfect measure, they may choose to stick with using hours to measure the effort and output of workers, due to its objective nature.
Even if only a fraction of sectors of the UK economy are ready to move on from the industrial style working week, the 4-day week does give a compelling case as to why we should change how we approach work.
It is clear that workers have a strong desire for improved control of their working life, which includes shortening hours as many feel they are unnecessarily long. However, there are still many hurdles the UK needs to face if it wants to successfully implement the 4-day week. Mainly, technological and capital improvements are paramount, as Keynes predicted. Building improved technological infrastructure and investing in AI are fundamental in pushing the UK towards a more automated economy, since it allows the labour force to be freed from time-consuming tasks, allowing them to shorten their hours without compromising on output. Yet, for many industries, plentiful research highlights there are many key benefits of a shorter working week, which could mean the phrase “thank God it’s Friday” may soon be outdated.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of the St Andrews Economist.