The four-day work week is welcome, but some challenges remain

This shift has thrown up interesting questions on macro and micro levels that over time will need answering

A logistics co-ordinator works at one of LDLC computer hardware retailer's logistics warehouse in Saint-Quentin-Fallavier near Lyon, France. Reuters
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The sin of presenteeism is shaping up as a pre-pandemic anachronism, and the principal reason for this is not just remote working but an emerging historic global shift towards a shorter working week.

The global headaches from supply constraints following Covid-19 disruption have overshadowed equally profound changes in the labour market. For some bosses, there is rationing not just of the number of workers but the time they are willing to work. As people reassess their work-life balance, responsible employers and some countries are looking at the advantages of compressed hours on the job.

The UAE is a trailblazer in this regard, with most emirates having formally adopted a 4.5-day working model. Sharjah has gone further by opting for a four-day model. Reporting last week in this newspaper found that its residents said they are healthier and happier, enjoying more weekend flexibility and having more time with their families.

Many forecasts over recent years have been very wide of the mark about the economic trajectory of the big developed economies. The Resolution Foundation, a UK-based think tank that looks at work, points out that in analysing the pandemic, “many feared a house price bust, expected the inflation spike to be small/short-lived, said unemployment/insolvencies for workers/firms respectively would surge and claimed this would be a ‘she-cession’. None happened”.

Technology is the driver of all this, and the trend may over time become irresistible

Analysis of Google searches in the UK from an employment agency recently reported the four-day work week had gained popularity among people on the hunt for their next job opportunity. “Google searches for "4 day week jobs" exploded a spectacular 1,011 per cent in early 2022, when compared to 2021,” according to the firm’s research.

One of Britain’s biggest and best-known corporate brands, the department store M&S, has hired a well-known female executive who is a prominent four-day week champion, Katie Bickerstaffe. She said her role was compatible with shorter hours, even though it is a round-the-clock operation.

“We’re a seven-days-a-week, 24-hour operation and that’s what you do, but I’ve always done that [four days] because it gives me the freedom to spend some downtime with my kids and not feel that I don’t have the opportunity to do that during the week,” she explained.

The news coincided with the announcement that 70 UK companies had voluntarily joined a scheme to alter the working week basis of their business. Signing on to a pledge to pay 100 per cent of wages for 80 per cent of the hours worked means much more than just creating new rotas. It means altering the internal working patterns of the business and finding new ways to accommodate latency in the workforce.

Not everyone is convinced this can deliver a kind of workplace nirvana.

The Centre for Policy Studies carried out some research last year that estimated that a four-day week would have a big cost to the economy if productivity levels remained constant. The annual shortfall to the economy would be £45 billion ($55.42bn). On more generous calculations, if a 6 per cent increase in productivity could be achieved in the first decade of the reform, the loss overall could be pared back to £17bn. The analyst behind the figures believes the evidence for productivity gains from compressing hours and having shorter working weeks is extremely limited.

That is not much of an argument for not experimenting with shorter weeks. Employees already job-share and expect work-from-home arrangements throughout the work force. In office-based roles or project work, the flexibility to complete the workload that comes with the job most obviously lends itself to working with a defined, shorter time frame.

Euston station in London. The system of four-day work weeks is easier to apply in some industries more than others. PA Wires

There are hurdles for other jobs. Customer-facing roles or service functions will still need to be provided across a far longer time-frame than four days or 32 hours. Unlike in Sharjah, there is no clear directive in the UK for a common day that extends the weekend. Indeed, many people working four days chose a non-consecutive day, such as Wednesday, for the non-working option.

Without the government plumping for Friday as part of a three-day weekend, it is likely that businesses will experience co-ordination both internally and with clients and supplies if substantial numbers in the workforce are missing in action for part of the working week.

There are also concerns around the equality of the development. Can it be true that more flexibility would allow women, in particular, to better balance childcare obligations and thus erode the disadvantage with men?

And as the work-from-home phenomenon has shown, the higher-paid employees have snapped up the main benefits from structural changes in how people work. There is little to suppose that this trend would not emerge from the four-day week.

Technology is, of course, the driver of all this, and the trend may over time become irresistible.

Certainly, the difficulties of drawing an absolute boundary between the working day and your time revolve around the fact that your email is always in your pocket on the phone. That is double-edged. It would be difficult for employers to play another card: offering people four days’ pay, not the salaried five.

Published: June 13, 2022, 4:00 AM