With Covid-19 infection rates declining globally and employers summoning their staff back to the office, many are saying goodbye to the era of remote work. As they do, skipped showers and pajamas are being replaced by traffic jams, packed subways and spouses or significant others being late for dinner. The dreaded five-day work-week is returning. But does it have to?
While many workers had their hours cut over the course of the pandemic, productivity in much of the world increased. For instance, new data from the McKinsey Global Institute finds that process innovations implemented during Covid-19 in the US and Europe have the potential to accelerate labour productivity growth by about 1 per cent over the next three years, which would be more than double the pre-pandemic rate. In other words, even as workers worked less during the pandemic, they produced more. To make these gains permanent, offices should consider the once unthinkable: embrace the four-day, 35-hour, work-week.
The rationale for doing so is strong. Throughout the Covid-19 crisis, mandatory work-from-home schemes coincided with greater flexibility in employees’ lives, enabling parents to help with home schooling and caregivers to tend to their patients. Employers and economists worried empty offices would mean a steep decline in output. But by and large, the opposite happened.
Workers everywhere became more efficient, packing in more work into shorter bursts. Many of us learnt that we don't need to be tied to a desk for eight hours a day, five days a week to get our jobs done. This revelation has clear mental health benefits. Less obvious, perhaps, are the social and financial gains that come with working less.
A four-day work-week does not mean fewer people in the workforce, just the opposite. To cover the hours of employees not working their pre-pandemic fifth day, companies will need to hire additional workers to fill these vacated time-slots. Nor does it mean employees will cram 40 hours of work into four days, a so-called “compressed work-week", a practice the International Labour Organisation says increases workers’ stress and fatigue and leads to “decreases in productivity and a higher risk of accidents”.
Rather, a four-day work-week is exactly as it sounds: four days of work, five days of pay.
This may seem economically naive, but efforts to prove its viability are already under way.
In March, Spain became one of the first countries in the world to trial a government-sponsored four-day work-week. The three-year test will provide salaries based on a five-day schedule, with some 3,000 employees from 200 firms participating. Politicians in Scotland and Wales, meanwhile, have voiced support for a similar idea, while a recent study by the 4 Day Week Campaign and Platform London – an environmental and social justice collective – found that wide adoption of the practice would dramatically reduce the UK’s carbon footprint, boost productivity, and improve employee mental health.
Past trials at Microsoft bolster these claims. In August 2019, the company tested a four-day work-week at its Japan offices, giving the entire 2,300-person workforce Friday’s off without cutting their pay. The results were staggering. Productivity rose by 40 per cent, while employee happiness surged. A more recent experiment, by the social media management company, Buffer, had a similar effect on morale.
To be sure, few long-term four-day work-week programmes could succeed without support. There are myriad reasons why governments should consider providing it. For starters, one less day on the clock would improve employee health and work-life balance, which, as Microsoft in Japan proved, aids on-the-job efficiency. An extra day off would also lead to increases in domestic tourism, expand opportunities for life-long learning and spur new “fifth day” leisure opportunities – as well as the industries devoted to providing them.
Additionally, a four-day work-week could help temper mass unemployment from automation and Covid-19. Job losses resulting from Covid-19 lockdowns, for instance, have affected scores of workers; a government-supported four-day initiative would create new jobs with minimal effort.
Finally, such a scheme would homogenise weekends across the globe. For instance, if western nations stopped working on Fridays and regions such as the Middle East and parts of Asia had Sundays off, the new global working week of Monday-Thursday would improve efficiencies across time zones and benefit globally-connected employees everywhere.
A shorter work-week is not without its drawbacks. Some specialties are simply not easy to replicate and could not be covered by new hires. More time at home could also lead to increases in domestic violence, as happened during Covid-19 lockdowns. Moreover, countries with workforce shortages – such as Japan and Germany – will struggle to fill fifth-day vacancies.
And yet, the biggest obstacle to widespread adoption is ideological. While the economics makes sense, there is a belief in some political circles that government should not be in the business of handouts, and that people should work for what they earn. This vestige of capitalism, which the German sociologist Max Weber termed the “Protestant ethic,” is based on the idea that people’s worth is measured by their work. This in turn fuels a conservative hesitancy toward redistributive wealth policies.
But if there ever were a time to rewrite the capitalist script, it is now. The Covid-19 pandemic is an exhausting, if productive, ordeal for workers everywhere. We owe it to them to build back better and one of the best ways to do that is by giving them an extra day to sleep in.
Nancy W Gleason is an Associate Professor of Practice, Political Science, and Director of the Hilary Ballon Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at New York University Abu Dhabi