Pandemic propels workers closer to four-day week

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  • The Covid-19 pandemic has forced change in office culture, like flexible hours and working from home.
  • From Iceland to Australia, governments and business are testing shorter work weeks.
  • Dozens of companies are set to take part in Britain's trial of a four-day week.


British photographer Paul David Smith had long toyed with the idea of switching all his staff to a four-day week, but it was the flexibility and reliability they showed in the pandemic that gave him the confidence to take the plunge.

Almost a year later and his trust has been rewarded.

He says staff at his eponymous studio have kept on top of the workload despite their reduced hours.

And they are far happier, too.

Smith is part of a revolution underway in the world of work - staff do shorter hours for the same pay - which has been gathering pace as economies look to bounce back from Covid-19.

From Iceland to Australia, governments and business are testing shorter work weeks, be it in fashion or fast food.

With dozens of companies set to take part in Britain's biggest ever trial of a four-day week, joining similar pilots in five other countries, Smith is at the vanguard of a movement that some believe could reshape workplace norms.

"The big game-changer has obviously been the pandemic," said Joe O'Connor of 4 Day Week Global, the New Zealand-based organisation co-running the British trial.

"Companies have not been able to monitor presenteeism in the way they previously did," he said. "As a result, that's opened the door to consider something like the four-day working week."

All change

The pandemic forced mass change in office culture, as lockdowns that closed schools and offices resulted in a sudden shift to remote working and flexible hours as many people struggled to balance jobs with care responsibilities.

Many firms now offer increased flexibility in response to demand from workers, as the "great resignation" and tightening labour markets in countries such as the United States and Britain fuel competition for new staff.

ALSO READ | ‘It’s a no for me,’ say workers as employees ask them to come back to offices after months of WFH

Spain has offered its financial backing to a four-day week trial, Japan has urged companies to let staff drop a day, and New Zealand premier Jacinda Ardern is also a keen supporter.

Dozens of firms are already on board. Spanish fashion house Desigual switched to a four-day week last year, and consumer giant Unilever is trialling the shorter week across New Zealand.

O'Connor said there was huge British interest in the six-month trial, co-organised by think-tank Autonomy and researchers at Cambridge University, Boston College and Oxford University.

The organisation is also running three other mass pilots in the United States, Canada, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.

"Everyone's super excited - including myself," said Nathan Hanslip, chief executive of Yo Telecom, among those planning to take part when the British trial begins in June.

The extra day off will give workers extra "wellness, happiness and more family time", he added.

Remote challenges

The big question for employers - can workers sustain the same level of work but do it in fewer hours?

Early signs are largely positive, with research by Autonomy think-tank on two large-scale trials of shorter work weeks in Iceland finding that productivity did not dip in most workplaces and worker wellbeing "dramatically" improved.

ALSO READ | We’re all exhausted but are you experiencing burnout? Here’s what to look out for

Encouraging large-scale switches to shorter hours can also benefit entire economies and help reduce unemployment, said Arthur Donner, a Toronto-based economic consultant who produced a 1994 report to the Canadian government on working hours.

"It's a form of work sharing," he said, spreading the total workload between a larger pool of people.

But even as the pandemic built the case for flexible working and shorter hours, numerous reports have found that home workers put in longer hours as their habits changed.

Just take the ubiquity of online meetings in the pandemic.

"Discussions that were quick emails or a call have now turned into zoom routine meetings for 30 minutes to an hour," said Jalie Cohen of the HR services firm, The Adecco Group.

We are working longer hours. But the outcomes and the productivity should be the focus.

Almost six in 10 workers said they could do their job in fewer than 40 hours a week, found surveys of about 15 000 people in 25 countries by The Adecco Group last year, even as the proportion working overtime rose by 14% in a year.

However, others wonder whether the shift to remote working, an increase in freelancing, and a digital 'always on' mentality, have all made the prospect of shorter hours even more remote.

"Think of all these people who are working from home now. How are you going to measure their working hours?" said Donner.

"When you answer an email at midnight from your boss, is that work? Of course it's work."

'New standard'

Research from employers suggests many see the need to embrace greater flexibility but are cautious on major shifts.

It is "getting harder to align" the priorities of employers and employees over work/life balance expectations, said Scott Gutz, chief executive of global recruitment firm Monster.

Which might mean many firms may be too cautious to act.

In Britain, a January poll by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) found more than half of managers said their workplaces were considering or would consider a four-day week - but 73% thought it would not happen in the end.

Many managers still "believe it's too big a change for business leaders to make", said CMI chief executive Ann Francke - though she added the same might once have been said of remote and hybrid working.

She said:

The five-day working week model isn't set in stone - once some firms start to adopt it, there is every chance it could snowball to be more mainstream.

O'Connor at 4 Day Week Global agreed, saying he previously expected it would take 10 years to make the shorter week a "new standard" in workplaces - now he thinks it could be five.

"In a lot of sectors, this is going to go from being the ambition to being the norm very, very rapidly," he said.


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