Recently, a trend that might revolutionize the world’s office life has gained popularity. Even though still at the beginning, the four-day working week proposition seems to be gaining ground, earning favourable reactions from both governments and companies. Few firms already started to explore this concept prior to the pandemic's outbreak, back in 2019, reaping some positive results. However, the novel programme meant to change our approach to opening hours really started to take off as businesses around the globe realised lockdowns and sanitary measures were here to stay for a long time. As corporations started to adapt, new types of jobs emerged, offering a combination of hybrid, remote or flexible options. As a result, the suggestion of a three-day-long weekend, previously considered a taboo, appears to be increasingly more acceptable, with countries such as Spain and New Zealand advocating for these programmes.
One of the first large-scale companies to introduce a trial programme aimed at testing the four-days-long workweek was the Japanese subsidiary of Microsoft, which in 2019 initiated the “Work-Life Choice Challenge 2019 Summer”. The technology giant’s plan aimed at reducing the number of weekdays without decreasing their employees’ salaries. At the end of the experiment, the company was surprised in observing that workers were happier and overall, the productivity was boosted by 40% compared to the previous summer. Furthermore, extending the weekend by one day led to Microsoft Japan’s decrease of 23% in electricity consumption, as well as a drop of 59% in printed paper used.
Likewise, in March 2021, the leftwing Spanish government has backed an experimental scheme aimed at promoting the 32-hours-long working week for all companies interested. The leader of the party who suggested the project, Inigo Errejon, mentioned it would “serve to reorient the economy towards improving health, caring for the environment and increasing productivity”. The three-years-long plan involves a €50m safety-net budget that will assist the participating companies in minimizing risks and losses. Moreover, Spain’s leadership also set in place a program aimed at allowing employers to gradually ease into this new option. Indeed, the businesses’ costs in taking part in such scheme will be completely safeguarded by the government during the first year, up to 55% on the second year, and by 33% on the third one.
Similarly, New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, encouraged the country’s entrepreneurs to consider introducing longer weekends and more flexible working alternatives. This would not only alleviate New Zealanders’ work-related stress which was accumulated during the Covid19 crisis but would also stimulate the slow tourism, caused by the frontiers still being closed to foreign travellers.
The advocates of a shorter working week claim that challenging this taboo would lead to numerous advantages, such as an increase in productivity, growth in job-attractiveness, positive ecological impact, a boost in well-being and work-life balance, and the reduction of inequalities.
Indeed, some of the companies that experimented this alternative, such as Perpetual Guardian in New Zealand or Target Publishing, a British editor company, recorded a boost in staff's happiness, satisfaction and adherence to the company's culture. The decrease in the number of hours also led to a reduction of burnout events and stress levels, alongside growth in productivity. Moreover, from an environmental perspective, going to the office one day less per week would lead to fewer rides to business buildings and therefore, a cut in emissions from traffic. Likewise, corporates’ consumption of electricity will decrease, reducing both the economic and ecological expenses.
Nonetheless, others seem to be more critical to this innovation, affirming it would not be a miraculous remedy but would instead lead to an increase in firms’ spending, detrimental effects on corporate culture, and a possible negative impact on customer service.
Indeed, introducing a functional four-days working week would require companies to invest in cutting-edge technology to ensure a smooth workflow. Moreover, a drop in working hours can turn the staff to be more and more disengaged with the company, slowly wearing away the spirit of camaraderie. Furthermore, a 28-hours or 32-hours-long working week might lead people to feel pressured to complete the same amount of tasks in a shorter time. Finally, curtailed office hours might make scheduling meetings and appointments more complex and could also anger clients having difficulties reaching after-sale services after the closing time.
Even though this proposal still remains an anomaly within the jobs market, it seems to be growing in popularity. Employment websites propose more and more flexible opportunities, with an increase in four-day week, remote or hybrid opportunities. Indeed, LinkedIn, the notorious jobs website, in July 2020 experienced an almost threefold increase of remote offers posted since March 2020, demonstrating worldwide employers’ willingness to adapt to the medical emergency. This flourishing trend also means that these alternatives are here to stay, well beyond the end of the epidemic. However, despite the many benefits, the main barriers to this scheme’s implementation lie in employers’ trust in their subordinates and their willingness to go beyond the industry taboo that working more hours means working better. The Coronavirus pandemic and the boost in technology use in agencies should be seen as an opportunity instead of a temporary phase. As Kate Soper, professor at the London Metropolitan University, commented, rather than “lamenting the loss of work, we should see it as an opportunity to actually rethink our whole politics on prosperity” and “move from an essentially work-rooted understanding of identity”.
Written by Cinzia Saro