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Will We See the Permanent Four-Day Work Week in Our Lifetime?

It’s an idea that’s getting a lot of airplay as the world reimagines the post-pandemic working week. But will employers ever make such an expensive leap of faith?

“If only Marx were still by my side to see this with his own eyes!” 

So quivered journalist and revolutionary theorist Friedrich Engels, in a state of euphoric anticipation on May 1, 1890. He was penning the preface to a new edition of The Communist Manifesto, some 42 years after he had put his name to that somewhat influential pamphlet’s first printing, and seven years after the death of his famous collaborator, Karl Marx. “Today as I write these lines,” Engels proclaimed in his foreword, “the European and American proletariat is reviewing its fighting forces, mobilized for the first time, mobilized as one army, under one flag, for one immediate aim.”

And what was this world-shaking upheaval that had him sermonizing about a new world order like a steampunk General Hux? It wasn’t the overthrow of a czar, or the abolition of all property, or anything quite so dramatic (not yet anyway). It was a coordinated peaceful protest — the international forerunner to Labor Day — which was taking place in cities across two continents that day, in which workers were demanding the eight-hour day become the legal standard in their respective countries.

A pretty reasonable idea from our point-of-view. And for those of us lucky enough to routinely spend Saturday and Sunday at home sleeping late, wearing no socks and aimlessly frittering the minutes until it’s time to start drinking again, we ultimately have this — the late-Victorian 40-hour-week campaign, or “short-time movement,” as it was also known — to thank for it. Many might argue it took Henry Ford in the 1920s to prove to his magnate peers that there was a compelling business case for a 40-hour timesheet before it really started to take off. But really, in its origins, the modern concept of “weekend” was a slow-burn socialist work-in-progress (that’s right — your treasured Saturday off is essentially proto-Trotskyite syndicalist anarchy, comrade) which, as the 20th century wore on, industrialists like Ford and Western governments alike found increasingly hard to argue against. As would any of us these days, no matter what our politics. 

As the hopeful organizers of the London protest in Hyde Park neatly summed it up on that auspicious May Day in 1890, the case was pretty watertight: “Why do we want the Eight-Hour Working Day? Because Eight Hours are long enough for any human being to work. Because there are thousands of unemployed and thousands who are working overtime. Because there need be no reduction of wage for the shorter working day. Because we want time and some freshness of body and spirit for our own mental and physical recreation, for our home life, for enjoying the society of husbands, wives and children.”

So that was the work-life debate of 130 years ago, and here we are again. Except today it’s not 40 hours but 30 or 32 — i.e., a legally enshrined four-day work week — that many are seeing as the humane answer to a working culture that feels increasingly out of kilter with the happy, fulfilled, even-keeled lives we somehow don’t seem to be living. What’s so striking about all recent chatter about revising the work week, though, is that in the digital dystopia of 2020, the arguments in favor of reducing the burden of labor by a further 20 percent are the same as they ever were.

For example, here’s Finland’s Prime Minister, Sanna Marin, stating her support for “a four-day week or a six-hour day with a decent wage” in August 2019, while she was still her country’s Minister for Transport: “I believe people deserve to spend more time with their families, loved ones, hobbies and other aspects of life, such as culture. This could be the next step for us in working life.” 

When she became Prime Minister in December it appeared to have fallen off her agenda, but in the same month, a four-day week did make it on to a long list of shiny campaign promises made by the British Labour Party as a means of “transforming lives [while] having enough to get by. Not just to scrape by, but to live a rich and fulfilling life.” They lost that general election fairly spectacularly, but bringing about a well-paid 32-hour week within a decade remains the collective stated goal of all of the U.K.’s major trade unions, who continue to claim: “This is an idea whose time has come.”

And it’s not just been gathering momentum among progressives, liberals and organized labor. It’s an idea that was aired at the World Economic Forum at Davos in 2019, and a number of high-profile experiments from businesses have ensured a steady flow of headlines fanfaring the paradoxical benefits that a four-day workforce that’s paid for five bring to companies’ bottom lines. Notable among these stories is Microsoft Japan, who reported that giving its employees Fridays off without cutting pay during a trial in November 2019 boosted the company’s productivity by a slightly-hard-to-believe-but-okay-if-you-say-so 40 percent.

Right now, with working patterns everywhere bent out of shape by the pandemic, lobbying groups that have made a four-day future their mission are hoping their moment really has arrived (at least they are Monday to Thursday — Fridays, they’re got their out-of-office switched on). With both employers and employees glimpsing exciting new parallel dimensions beyond the old Monday-to-Friday rut we’ve all been stuck in for the past century — and with at least one poll in the U.K. suggesting that two-thirds of Brits want their government to actively look into the four-day option once the crisis ends — perhaps these four-day adventists are right.

Here’s Why the Four-Day Work Week Should Happen

“It’s a perfect way of working for me, really,” says Craig, a copy chief on a weekly magazine who negotiated fully paid Mondays off as part of his promotion a couple of years ago. “Although,” he admits, “I’ll basically do the least amount of work I can get away with and still have a reasonable quality of life.”

Well played, sir. So what could the bosses be getting out of it? “It was a good way of them getting the person they wanted for the job and not having to give them more money,” says Craig, but there were other upsides for management too. Monday, post print deadlines, was proving an agonizingly slow day on the magazine: “There was nothing to do all day, and everyone knew it — but they couldn’t really do anything about our contracts, I guess.” 

Since Craig paved the way, nearly all of his colleagues in his department have adopted a three-day weekend too (though not all of them on full pay) and, he says, the positive impact on quality of life has been significant. Monday is when he catches up on banking, laundry and the rest, leaving his weekends entirely unblemished by chores. He says, “I often think to myself: ‘How would I have a chance to do all this domestic stuff if I didn’t have this extra day?’ I guess it would just get done. But I’m glad I’ve got that extra day to do it.”

The mutual benefits for Craig and his company aren’t so hard to fathom, given there was slack in the system to begin with. What’s harder to explain is why some of the most ardent evangelists of making the switch to a four-day-full-pay system are efficiency-conscious business owners and management scientists. Supporters on the employer side of the bargain tend to hinge their case not so much on employee morale and wellbeing (though that’s often seen as an integral, if secondary, part of it) but primarily on the bump in productivity and profits that can result.

How can a business that willingly cuts its labor hours by a fifth possibly enjoy greater output as a result, though? 

Often held up as a test case for how this works is the New Zealand trusts and investments firm Perpetual Guardian, whose initial two-month study of four-days/full-pay in 2018 led to productivity levels among its 240 staff notching up, while stress levels dropped off and customer engagement sailed up by 40 percent. 

It also led to founder Andrew Barnes’ full conversion to the cause, to become a global guru of four-day enlightenment. In his book, The 4 Day Week, he describes how the revelation came to him on a plane trip while reading about studies on worker productivity in the U.K. and Canada: “The research found that employees were productive for only 1.5 to 2.5 hours of a typical eight-hour day.” If each person who worked for him was really only giving him two-and-a-half valuable hours each day, he reasoned, “I only needed to claw back 40 more productive minutes per day to get the same output from staff in a four-day week as in a five-day week.” In other words: Humans in offices are monumental slackers who only do real work for less than a third of the time we’re in the building; if we can buck up our focus just a little, and apply ourselves for two-fifths of a work day, we can all have Fridays off without the business suffering a cent. 

Barnes cites other companies that have seen even more dramatic results than his. In its first year of offering staff a three-day weekend, a market research agency in London called The Mix, for example, saw its client numbers double and its revenues climb by 57 percent. Explaining the apparent less-is-more effect, Barnes says it’s all about incentive: “Employees who are gifted a day off each week will be inclined, consciously or not, to exceed the agreed outputs, making the four-day week model potentially more productive than the five-day week. That value of giving people time to invest in themselves cannot be overstated.”

Here’s How the Four-Day Work Week Can Happen

Cutting work hours by a fifth while keeping the salary bill unscathed involves a huge leap of faith for most businesses — but it’s one that more and more operations, large and small, are taking. One that’s made it work is Mortgage Medics, a broker based in Hove, southern England, which introduced an optional four-day week (on full pay, with no reduction in paid leave) in August last year for its senior team of mortgage advisers. “It took a couple of months for us to get into the rhythm,” says Associate Director Ben Murphy. “It’s almost like a transparent day, where you can take it or not. After a good few weeks, people were managing to have that day.”

Counterintuitively, the company made the switch because they were all working too many hours. “It was getting to the point where we were working five days a week, eight in the morning till eight or nine o’clock at night, and you could see people looking physically drained.” Fewer billable hours might not have been the obvious solution to this sort of problem, but after reading around reports on a range of flexible-working solutions, they decided on the four-day week as a radical fix. “We thought: ‘This could go one of two ways…’” 

The new schedule was, he says, “designed to try to improve the wellbeing and the stress levels of all the staff. Would an extra day help in terms of spending more time with their families? Or free up more time to do things they want to do? Release the stress at work if they had another day off in the week?” From his own point-of-view, Murphy says it did all those things for him, and, barring a few teething difficulties (“a few people were coming in on their day off because they felt they had too much to do in the early stages”), it’s been felt as a resoundingly positive experience among his co-workers, with people proactively organizing schedules and clearing inboxes so they can have that spare day all to themselves. 

When it comes to productivity and the general health of the business, he says, “The worry was there’d be a big drop-off, with people making mistakes because they’re trying to cram it into a four-day week.” Instead, they’ve found that “things haven’t changed too much — we’re running on roughly the same figures as we were before; I think we’re doing a little bit more.”

The one change he has noticed is that the overall workload is being shared more evenly among the team: “There’s more of an equilibrium now,” and as an employer, the adjustment has amounted to being “a bit smarter with what people are doing and what their responsibilities are.” For the staff as a whole, meanwhile, the key to making it work, says Murphy, “has been organization. People have actually been planning their days better.”

And Here’s Why the Four-Day Work Week Won’t Happen

That said, “Every business is different,” cautions Murphy. When Mortgage Medics weighed the merits of offering advisers a paid day off, they had a hunch that it would soon pay off for their business because a portion of the advisers’ wages come from commission, ensuring the incentive to complete tasks and do them well would remain high, even on a tighter schedule. Even so, the policy has remained “always under review” and the directors were careful to introduce it as a verbal agreement among the team, rather than anything contractual, and an optional one at that. “It was, ‘Let’s see if it works,”’ says Murphy. “The whole idea was to try to make lives easier. And it could be very, very easy to make it more difficult.”

And here’s the thing: A world where four days is the universally accepted norm might sound like the ideal balance for mortgage advisers, trust managers, Microsoft employees and magazine journalists, but for a huge section of the workforce, it doesn’t even begin to map on to their much more fragmented experience of work in 2020. In some ways our current anxieties about working hours are a clear echo of those of the 40-hours movement of the 1890s — income inequality in the U.S., Europe and many other countries is higher now than at any time since the Gilded Age. But today’s low-wage economy differs from that of 130 years ago in one critical respect — and in realizing the dream of a three-day weekend, it makes all the difference.

“Instead of Engels’ industrial city, we have the modern retail and food-service workplace,” says Daniel Schneider, professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and co-director of The Shift Project, which has been collecting and analyzing data on the low-wage economy since the financial crash of 2008. “Once, low-wage workers, hourly workers — the ‘proletariat’ — had too much work and faced the problem of overwork. Now it’s really different.” 

The burden of an overlong working week, he says, “is honestly not the problem faced by the millions of workers in the service sector in the U.S. What they have a problem of is not enough work. They have a problem of underwork, of insufficient hours. And the reason that’s a problem is in part because their hours aren’t paid very well.”

The ideal of a 30- or 32-hour week, as it’s often presented, is a vision that works primarily for salaried, white-collar office workers, says Schneider, and simply doesn’t account for hourly workers in the service industry, who might be on minimum wage but are “often involuntarily part-time.” What’s driving this is not only the technology-fueled gig economy, but the wider adoption of a culture of ad hoc hours and to-the-minute efficiency methods by retail and food businesses, among others. 

“Firms,” Schneider says, “really want to transfer their payroll risk — that uncertainty of ‘How many people will I need on the floor?’ or ‘How many customers will come to the store?’ — from their own payrolls to individual households. And by keeping workers on call, by sending people home when the store is slow, firms avoid that risk — they avoid that extra pay.” But, he says, “Workers bear it. And so if you keep workers on short-hour contracts, well, then when you need them to stay late they will, right? And if you ask people to work on call, because they might get a few hours that way, they’ll do it.”

Against that backdrop of wage-instability and an inability to plan their working lives week to week, for those on low pay with unpredictable schedules, the notion of a three-day weekend is, says Schneider, “discordant.” It’s hard to see Saturday to Monday as a protected safe space when your livelihood is a moving target. For Schneider, a generalized campaign for a four-day week is failing to see the world that’s trying to get by beyond the glass offices — and it’s yet another sign of the immense inequality that’s opened up in recent decades.  

“In the U.S. pre-COVID, 20 percent of the labor force was in the service sector, broadly,” says Schneider. “That’s a pretty big chunk. Then you add in many other sectors that encounter similar practices — in logistics, in transportation and much of health care — and that’s a big, big part of the workforce” that the four-day lobby is excluding. “There are lots of workers who already have a three- or a four-day work week — or the equivalent in terms of hours — but that’s a problem,” he says. “That’s not being able to put enough food on the table.”

The Four-Day Work Week: ‘Not Life-Changing’

Even for white-collar workers with secure hours, without an employer who’s willing to sign off on five days’ pay, a four-day week often doesn’t necessarily add up. Switching to a schedule with Mondays off for two months this summer “made the four days more intense, but not overbearingly so,” says Paul, who heads up a content team for a global travel firm, “and in many cases it did make you more productive in those times.” He won’t be going back to it in a hurry, though.

In a sector hit hard by bans on international travel, his company made the offer of a regular unpaid day off open to all staff, but it was aimed particularly at parents. “They said: ‘We’ll give you the option of reducing your work week down to either four or three days, with a commensurate drop in salary,’” says Paul. “It was a recognition of the amount of parenting we were having to do, and educating at home.”   

While he found the extra day helped with managing a busy home life, in terms of his wellbeing he found the benefits were “not life-changing.” Responsible for 14 staff, all still working a full five days, on those Mondays, he says he couldn’t “genuinely switch off, like it were a weekend. I still kept an eye on things, which was probably my bad. But then I don’t think I would have felt comfortable with everyone else working, being completely off-grid.” And no matter how he organized his time, there would always be a backlog waiting for him: “Tuesday morning there’s a sort of element of dread, as there is coming back from any holiday, of ‘What’s lurking there?’”

In the end, though, it was the 20 percent financial hit that led him to decline his employer’s offer to extend the arrangement further after his child’s school had reopened: “You’re losing out money because your salary’s gone down, but you’ve also got an additional day to spend on activities.” 

Despite all the surveys showing popular support for it, and all the fine “win-win” arguments in its favor, it’s an illustration of just how far away present economic norms are from the three-day weekend that, when faced with giving up a fifth of their salary to claw back a seventh of their waking week, people in Paul’s firm picked their financial wellbeing over all that other stuff. “In the global team there’s about 140 people,” he says, “and I think I was the only person out of 140 to take up the offer.”

And from a summer of four days on, three days off, that’s his main takeaway: “Your experience of it is going to be in the context of the company. If everybody is doing four-day weeks, everybody will feel better for it. When it’s piecemeal and just individuals, then you’re basically missing a whole day of work and things build up.”

For Craig, meanwhile, being paid to stay home for a day has meant everything the evangelists say it should to his fatigue levels and personal sense of fulfillment. But that also brings its own anxiety. “I don’t want to jinx it, but I can’t imagine going back to a five-day week,” he says, keenly aware that he’d be fortunate to step into that arrangement again. “The weekends for me now feel quite short. And I think to myself, ‘God, a two-day weekend? That’s just going to go like that!’”

And for millions of workers for whom 32 or fewer hours a week looks more like disease than cure, this whole debate is happening a long way down the priority list. Given a completely transformed set of social and economic conditions, Schneider says he isn’t opposed to more leisure time in theory: “Would a four-day work week, where everyone was guaranteed a living income, where workers had control over hours, be a good thing? Yeah, I think that’d be great. That sounds terrific.”

But he points out that the notion of a perfect working pattern for all is a misleading one, because the ideal solution — as any part-time clothing-store assistant will tell you — can never be one-size-fits-all. “It’s not about a four-day week. That’s not the goal, right? It’s a tool,” says Schneider. Those fundamental demands the international organized labor movement put forward in the 1890s haven’t changed. We’re all still chasing more time to spend with families, for home life and for “freshness of body and spirit for our own mental and physical recreation” — but the barriers in our way to getting them have altered, and they’ve done so radically and in a multitude of ways across a variety of job categories.

“The goal is those things,” he agrees. “And it may be that the tools are really different for different workers in different parts of the economy. Maybe a four-day week is the way to get those things for a white-collar worker. But maybe a stable schedule and a minimum-hours contract is the way to get it for a sales clerk, a cashier or a warehouse worker.” A universally mandated four-day week, he says, “is a very grand and progressive idea. It just comes up against a hard reality.”

Aside from a lucky few who have won the triple job-jackpot, then — whose line of work, salary and employer’s philosophy perfectly align to make a paid day off come true — there’s no escape for the time being from that other hard reality, the one it seems we’re forever waking up to: Monday morning.