Workers have had the tantalising prospect of a shorter working week dangled in front of them for decades. As far back as 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that technological advances would put us on course for a 15-hour working week within a couple of generations.
Even Richard Nixon liked the idea, foreseeing that a four-day work week would lead to a fuller family life back in 1956. But so far, such a reduction in working hours has remained out of reach for most.
In fact, our progress towards a shorter working week had seemingly stalled. According to analysis from the New Economics Foundation (NEF), the UK would have been on target to reach a 30-hour-week by 2040, had average hours continued to decline at the same rates as the post-war era. Six hours were cut from the average working week between 1946 and 1979, but the average worker has gained just four hours of extra leisure time in the 44 years since.
Employee attitudes and expectations have changed
The tides may now be turning. Last week, the 4 Day Week Campaign claimed that we have reached a “breakthrough moment” following the results of its UK pilot, which saw 2,900 workers cut their hours from an average of 38 per week to 34 for a six-month period.
It’s not hard to see the appeal of a four-day week for employees; a number of studies have demonstrated the impact the change to our working patterns has for individuals’ health, wellbeing and work-life balance. The real challenge will be winning over business leaders.
Despite the trial’s success, there were still five CEOs that opted against implementing a four-day week and only 18 were sufficiently convinced to make the change permanent. Of the 70 companies that were due to be part of the pilot, nine dropped out before it began in earnest. Even at those early stages, two companies decided shorter working hours were not right for them, while others cited external challenges, such as the great resignation trend, as their reasons for not taking part.
There are also issues with the way the trial was conducted that make extrapolating its results out to the wider economy difficult. Participants were self-selecting, meaning that the bosses of these businesses were already intrigued by the four-day-week concept, and most of the businesses were relatively small – 66% had 25 staff or fewer.
The largest companies still need persuading
The other barrier that the four-day week has yet to overcome is managers’ resistance to change. While employee flexibility and work-life balance were top of the priority lists for businesses during the pandemic, there has since been a retreat to previous ways of working.
A number of notable companies have sought to call an end to remote working, with the CEOs of Disney, Apple, Twitter and JPMorgan Chase all showing a clear preference for office-based work. And, amid the harsher economic climate, there is a renewed focus on productivity, as companies like Monzo use surveillance tools to monitor staff activity.
If four-day week campaigners are to be successful in their mission, convincing the CEOs of these larger corporations will be key. Just as Henry Ford helped to establish the weekend when he introduced the 40-hour work week at his motor company, the bosses of FTSE 100 firms could help provide the impetus to make the four-day week the new standard.
But persuading the bosses of big businesses to give staff an additional day off each week represents an uphill battle – particularly at a time when shareholders are focused on securing returns. So far, Atom Bank is the largest UK business to implement a true four-day week, having extended the benefit to its 400 staff last year.
Although some may point to Sainsbury’s new work scheme, which offers employees the chance to work a more flexible four-day schedule, it represents a four-day week in name only. The supermarket won’t be granting this perk to its shop-floor staff and requires those involved to work the same contracted hours as before, only now with the option of condensing them into a four-day period. Hardly the four-day-week utopia that workers have dreamed of.
Although perceptions may be changing, there remains a lack of impetus or motive for the UK’s largest firms to make the four-day switch. Unless they do, the 4 Day Week Campaign’s prophecy that this will be a turning point may soon seem as outdated as Nixon’s prediction.