The 4-day work week conundrum, a significant member of the labor force shift, is as much a hot topic as The Great Resignation and hybrid work. But experts are leaning towards scrapping this idea.
Looking at the economics of the matter, it just won’t work. A report by the Financial Times quotes economic historian Robert Skidelsky saying that “capping working hours nationwide, on the lines of France’s 35-hour working week, is not realistic or even desirable, because any cap needs to be adapted to the needs of different sectors.”
Although the promised benefits of a 4-day work week is enticing when packaged in a manner of looking at the benefits which include improved well being, better focus, fairer sharing of childcare between men and women, and even a lighter carbon footprint. Fear of missing out on the latest trend must not, however, blind companies to important obstacles and drawbacks.
Offsetting the cost of a four-day week at a national level looks hard to achieve. The Wellcome Trust, the science research foundation, decided in 2019 that even a trial would be disruptive, partly because its staff performed a mix of roles. Some jobs were hard to confine to four days. Other employees preferred to spread their work over five days. Part-timers already on a four-day week feared they might lose out.
Lockdowns exposed the gap between flexible home working professionals and front-line “always on” staff. A four-day week might widen it.
Some staff want or need to work extra hours. To the risks of a two-tier workforce and reduced freedom of choice add the danger of overload.
For each of these objections, advocates have an answer. One is that companies just need to organize staff more efficiently. In itself, better management would improve productivity. Another is to cut working hours, rather than days, allowing greater flexibility. Cumulatively, though, the obstacles present a powerful deterrent.
The trends fuelling workplace innovation are not going away. Automation, a tight labor market, the quest of younger workers for better jobs: all these will encourage employers to differentiate themselves from each other. In due course, these same trends may nudge more organizations, and perhaps eventually governments, to take another step down the long path of reducing working hours.