For centuries, people have been predicting that the rise of technology will mean less work and shorter working hours. Not only that, but the profits of the new machines would be shared out amongst the rest of society, leaving us with more time for leisure and recreation. Wouldn’t that be nice?!
It’s fair to say that hasn’t happened. People typically work longer hours and for less pay nowadays than they did in the 1970s. The trend toward greater leisure time and less work has been overturned in recent years, largely by our constant interconnectedness which blurs the line between work and leisure time.
That being said, lockdown has thrown a lot of what we expect about our working days out the window. Organisations and employers who previously would never have dreamed about letting their employees work remotely have been forced to concede that people can get the work they need to done whether they’re suited and booted in the office or sitting on their sofa in their pyjamas.
Right now may be the perfect time to radically reconsider what exactly are our priorities and our desires when it comes to work.
Several countries and companies have made the swap recently to a four-day workweek, and the trend appears to be catching on across the globe.
While working fewer hours might seem counter-productive, the evidence we have points to the fact that shorter working hours actually means a more effective workforce.
This is the rise of the four-day workweek.
The standard work schedule we currently operate on has not always been a fixed rule, though it is so ubiquitous now that it hardly seems like the type of thing you would question.
Eight hour days were a huge win for the labour movement throughout history which struggled from the 1500s through to the early 1900s to get them.
Before this, work wasn’t defined, it was just done. This meant people would regularly work six days a week of anywhere from 10 to 16 hours and there wasn’t a legal age at which people could become employed. Child labour and dangerous working conditions were the norm.
Socialist Robert Owens in the UK kicked off the eight-hour movement in 1810 with the slogan “eight hours rest, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.” While it wasn’t a popular idea at the time, this format eventually became the norm through the 20th century.
In 1915, the Ford Motor Company undertook the radical step of paying its employees a higher wage for eight hours of work, down from the normal nine. While other car manufacturers disliked the change, it soon caught on in the industry as the increased productivity of the company was noticed by others.
In 1926, Henry Ford went one step further and gave all his employees both Sunday and Saturday off, stating that with more leisure time they would be able to buy and drive Ford cars. The plan worked.
In 1920, Australia was granted the eight-hour workday over five days while the US didn’t get this until 1940. Most countries around the world now work 40 hours as standard. But those gains in leisure time weren’t meant to stop there.
The Four-Day Week
With the economic boom in the US post-war period, there were concerns that modern people would have so much free time that they wouldn’t know what to do with it. Charming films like this one were made to help teenagers find a use for all that free time they suddenly found themselves with.
In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, a dystopian future was imagined in which people did so little work, because technology did it all for them, that they became addicted to leisure and took mind-altering drugs to alleviate the boredom of a lack of purpose.
It’s fair to say that technology has had somewhat of the opposite effect to the one that the technologists had predicted. Yes, we are able to work from almost anywhere on the planet, but most companies still expect employees to conduct their work in the office.
Increased efficiency through technology has not meant less work, only an increased capacity for work as more tasks can be done in a shorter amount of time.
As the post-COVID shift has shown in Australia, it’s likely that we’ll be returning to work in much the same capacity that we had done previously.
And yet, now might actually be the best time for a radical shift. Experiments with shorter working hours have already shown that there are myriad health and social benefits to having more recreation time. People with more time engage more readily in community activities and report a higher sense of responsibility to and reliance on their local area and public services.
That’s not to mention the mental health benefits of working less, and Lord knows we need more of that right now. People working shorter hours, or even just more flexible hours, report feeling happier and more satisfied in the work that they do and in their lives in general. With more time to sleep and do all of life’s mundane but necessary tasks like laundry and cooking, people return to work feeling more refreshed and motivated. Burnout could well be a thing of the past.
The key part of those findings may be in the autonomy factor. Google, one of the most successful companies of all time, already gives its employees free rein over 20% of their workweek. They can choose to work on whatever they want, or nothing at all. This flexibility and allowing people to indulge their passions has been credited with the creation of Gmail.
The demand for such working conditions is on the rise. While we are a fair way off legislating for a four-day workweek, in part due to the collapse of the labour movement in Australia, the market itself is closing this gap.
Based on the benefits alone, it may be worth it for companies to implement this working schedule if they want a happier and, crucially, more productive workforce. In the US for example, the jobs website ZipRecruiter has reported a tripling of jobs mentioning a four-day week in the past three years.
Sweden conducted an 18-month trial of a four-day workweek with nurses in the country who all reported feeling happier and more relaxed – certainly qualities you would want in trained medical staff working to save people’s lives.
Even in Japan, a country that has a word for being worked to death, experiments with shorter working hours have been successful. The Japanese offices of Microsoft trialled the four-day workweek and found that productivity rose by 40% with 94% of employees reporting satisfaction with the move.
However, trials of four-day workweeks haven’t always had positive results. In the Swedish example, the program was ultimately rejected because of costs to the health care service. Entrepreneurs in the country argued it wasn’t a viable model for people working in creative, competitive business environments, though the nurses involved reported they were disappointed when the trial ended.
Is This the Future?
It’s a truism that people will fit the work they have to the time they have to do it in. Efficiency is key and giving people less time to do their work will mean less procrastination and more satisfaction with a job that doesn’t drag out as long.
With New Zealand flirting with the idea of a four-day workweek, having seen good results off the back of the trust company Perpetual Guardian’s trials, PM Jacinda Ardern has spoken out on the benefits of the system.
Finland too is looking into the idea with some seriousness and Spain’s new trial is just the latest in what has been an 80-plus year experiment into different working practices that strike the right balance between work, life, and the economy.
The Spanish government has announced 50 million in funding to support the trial, which will take place in September, lowering the workweek to 32 hours without cutting employee pay. Sociologists and economists will be monitoring the situation closely.
America — the land of opportunity for anyone who works themselves to death — is getting onboard with the idea as legislation tabled in the Californian Congress seeks to legally implement a 32-hour week.
FOX8, in reporting on the news, notes that “a four-day week is already normal for a lot of American workers, and many employers are touting the results with no drop and even improvements in productivity”.
The list of countries interested in the global movement seems to be growing month by month. Scotland has thrown its weight behind the idea with a trial of the four day week without a reduction in pay after a report found that 80% of Scots support the idea. The trial is a campaign promise being delivered by the country’s ruling Scottish National Party and seeks to capitalise on the shake-up of work during the pandemic.
There is also an environmental angle to consider. Studies into the carbon footprint of work estimate that a four-day workweek could reduce emissions by as much as 28%. That’s huge when you consider we need drastic cuts like that in order to avoid the catastrophe of over two degrees of global warming.
And the likelihood of this happening in Australia? Well, with momentum building across the world, it’s likely we’ll see more organisations experimenting with the idea. Last year, Melbourne digital agency Versa completed a year-long experiment of closing its doors each Wednesday. Staff retention and happiness soared, sick leave plummeted, and the business tripled its profits in 12 months.
At least four other businesses across the country have found similar results and the ACT Government is currently investigating the idea with a call for submissions to its Standing Committee on Economy, Gender, and Economic Inequality.
However, leading Australian business representatives, the Australian Industry Group has slammed the idea, saying it would lead to lower productivity and lower competitiveness for Australian businesses. All evidence to the contrary.
As in Henry Ford’s day, it’s likely industry that will lead the charge here. If more companies can prove that a four-day week is more effective, the government will eventually have to take charge and mandate it.
Still, it would require a sizable portion of businesses doing so, and it could be many years before we see that happening.
Unquestionably, the world of work has been turned upside down during COVID and we’ve all proven that we can work in vastly different ways to the traditional 40-hours, five-day model.
Now is the time to look more closely at the net positive benefits of less work and imagine bigger and better futures for ourselves and our planet.