Is a four-day week the future of work? - RSA

Is a four-day week the future of work?


  • Future of Work
  • Employment

Calls for a four-day working week appear to be gathering momentum. To its advocates, a world of work where we are both happier and more productive is within our reach. So could a four-day week become the norm?

The early results are in, and they’re encouraging. A much-cited study from New Zealand has yielded very encouraging outcomes. Financial advice company Perpetual Guardian shifted its entire workforce to four days. The result: productivity remained steady, meaning no financial loss for the company; meanwhile, workers were less stressed, showed stronger leadership, commitment, and felt a much-improved work-life balance. In Sweden, a two-year trial where retirement home workers saw their week cut to 30 hours resulted in healthier staff, a better work environment and lower unemployment.

Such results are stoking calls for expansion of the four-day week, even at national scale. Following the TUC's call over the summer, the Labour Party are apparently now seriously considering the idea as policy. Is this a pipe dream, or a reality more attainable than we thought?

As with most hot topics in the future of work, there’s more complexity here than meets the eye, and clarity is required. There are unresolved questions at the most fundamental level: exactly which jobs are we talking about? And how does it stack up?

Let’s first separate a substantive four-day week proposal from merely flexible and part-time contracts. From Amazon to German manufacturing giant IG Metall, many companies now offer workers the option to reduce to 30 hours or less, for a proportional reduction in pay. These initiatives help many manage their work lives around other commitments, such as family or caring, and make the world of work more accessible. They should be championed. However, at a time when many are only just earning enough to get by, a four-day week paid for by workers voluntarily reducing their hours is not a radical proposal. Is there a way towards a four-day week with a full-time salary?

Easy wins?

What’s so appealing about the New Zealand trial is it apparently delivers all the benefits of a four-day week for no cost, as if by magic. Workers consolidate their work into 4 days, and their employer can keep their pay packets the same, thanks to a bump in productivity. As Perpetual Guardian’s boss proudly declared, “There’s no downside”.

To some this might seem too good to be true. But to others, it’s a lesson that’s long overdue. Many suspect that the actual, useful work done by the modern worker could be done in far fewer hours. The UK’s productivity continues to languish – down again in the last quarter – and many point the finger at presenteeism, or ‘bullshit’ taking over our jobs, or other ingrained cultural factors as a major part of the problem. Adopting a four-day week tomorrow could be the spur we all need to loose these shackles and simply start working less and better.

Data suggests that a massive number of jobs could potentially shift in this way - a global survey found that 78 percent of workers felt their job could be done in less than 7 hours per day, and almost half felt they needed 5 hours per day or less – however surely not all jobs. The difference between the New Zealand financial advisors and Swedish retirement carers is illuminating here. It’s quite easy to imagine how financial advisors, or public relations managers could fit their weekly workload into four days whilst still achieving the same amount of work. By contrast, the Swedish trial was discontinued as the increased cost of hiring more staff was unsustainable. Clearly, not all jobs flex in the same way.

The work of a security guard, receptionist, or customer service manager, for instance, can’t be simply shifted and consolidated; being present at work for a certain period of time is an essential component of the job. It’s an oversimplification to say that only desk jobs can flex; recent innovations in the notoriously-gruelling restaurant trade show what can be done with enough ingenuity. But it’s equally clear that not all work can be made more efficient simply by removing slack from the system. Short of technological automation, it’s difficult to see how the work of teachers, drivers, surgeons or decorators could be consolidated into less time than they currently take.

Or automation on our own terms?

An alternative approach, favoured by the political Left, is therefore to embrace automation, harnessing and sharing its productivity gains to allow less time at work for everyone while maintaining productivity overall. At best, a four-day week could sit in a symbiotic relationship with technological innovation, encouraging the private sector to develop and deploy new technologies. Rather than overnight, this would be a transition over many years, as technologies slowly replace human labour. This vision echoes our own call that the best response to radical new technologies is not to shy away, but instead push for ‘Automation on our own terms’.

We can imagine this being implemented on a company level; however it would presumably require fairly radical intervention for companies to distribute automation gains towards workers over shareholders. And once again, such an approach would be complicated by unevenness, as not all kinds of work are equally open to automation. While haulage companies and accountancy firms may be some of the big winners through automation in the next decade, we know that ‘high-touch’ work such as nursing care will require ever increasing number of working hours. Any plan to implement a four-day week across all sectors would need additional, highly ambitious economic intervention to transfer productivity gains from one sector to another, if not provide direct subsidy for some sectors.

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The bigger picture

Last but not least, those arguing for a four-day week should have a sense of where the proposal fits within the broader drive for good work. For one thing, what would this do for the ever-increasing number of self-employed people, or those precariously employed in zero-hours contracts or the gig economy? Arguably the pressures facing these workers are the most greatest priority, over what may turn out to be a nice-to-have for mainly comfortable, salaried office workers. And as my colleague Benedict Dellot blogged earlier this year, a push for a four-day week could serve as a distraction from the task of improving the workplaces we have, and addressing the ‘always-on’ culture that sees people’s workloads spilling into their leisure time, whatever their supposed working hours.

Enthusiasm for the four-day week is growing, but clarity is needed on a number of points. What exactly is the ask? Which jobs, and how is it paid for? At the RSA Future Work Centre we believe this is an area which merits further investigation. More employer-led initiatives must be the next step, to better understand the specific impacts on different kinds of work, building up an evidence base for more ambitious proposals in future.

We’re keen to hear from any companies currently experimenting with a four-day week, or thinking of doing so. If you’re one of them, get in touch!

  • Automation on our own terms [long read] - why we need new rights, responsibilities and assets to help workers thrive amidst new technologies.

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