We are hungry for time. The current situation is not as our ancestors imagined. They assumed that the next generations would work much fewer hours. They had good reason to think so. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, people went from working 7 days a week to 6, and from 6 days to 5. The same happened with the number of daily hours, which were reduced from 12 to 10 and from 10 to 8.
This clear downward trend, due to new legislation and the irruption of technology, encouraged intellectuals to visualize 6, 4 and even 2-hour days. Machines would do the rest. For example, Keynes in his report Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren (1930) spoke of 3 hours a day or 15 hours of work per week.
The reality has been very different. 100 years after the new principle of 8 hours a day/five days a week (5/40), we’re generally still the same. What’s true is that, although we’ve seen very little significant change, there have been interesting initiatives.
“More than a century after its implementation, we are still working 8 hours a day/five days per week”.
(Unsuccessful) attempts to reduce the working day
Kellogg’s is a good example. In the 1930s, the company known to many for its cereals introduced the 6-hour workday. However, in 1943, the company reversed course due to two major reasons: labour shortages and increased demand caused by World War II.
Other more recent initiatives have been the 3-day workweeks in the UK (1974), in this case to avoid further inflation, the 4-day weeks in Utah, USA (2008-2009), or more recently in Iceland (2015-2019), where it has been a “resounding success” . Beyond experiments with proven success, France has been the country that reduced the number of working hours by law, the well-known 35-hour weeks (2000-2008), which had a dual objective:
* To generate more work by reducing the number of hours per worker
* To improve family coexistence.
Economists were divided from the outset on the first point. While some predicted a revolution in the labour market (2 million new jobs), others foresaw a possible damage to the state coffers and the competitiveness of companies. Neither happened. After 20 years, the famous 35 hours have become a thing of the past, although the debate is still alive. Today, with new technological tools, as well as a renovated willingness on the part of companies and employees, it’s time to rethink our working hours.
The commitment to the 4-day workweek
The 4-day workweek has drawn a lot of attention in recent days. On October 7th, 86% of Desigual’s employees voted in favour of the 4-day work week, which means working 34 hours instead of 39.5, with a 6.5% reduction in salary, as the other 6.5% is assumed by the company. This new measure will affect only the employees in the headquarters (500 out of 2700 employees) and not in-store staffers.
Although the 4-day week may seem very innovative, it is not so new. As early as 1940, Mobil and other oil companies agreed to 4-day work weeks for their carriers, a sector that is essential to the operation of almost everything.
In 1972, an interesting book was also published: 4 days, 40 hours: Reporting a revolution in work and leisure, published by Riva Poor. In his preface, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul A. Samuelson spoke of the fact that after so many technical inventions it was time for social inventions, and the 4-day workday was a clear example of such.
In the 1970s and 1980s there was a boom in empirical studies exploring the impact of such compressed weeks.
Benefits of the 4-day workweek
In summary, it seems that compressed weeks, such as 4-day workweeks, could generate very significant benefits for companies and employees:
* They increase job satisfaction and commitment.
* They allow more time for leisure, personal tasks, and family time.
Some studies point out that working one day less should be linked to more productivity, as there is less weekly commuting, less absenteeism, and greater satisfaction that should lead to more productivity. Conversely, there are those who suggest that a compressed week may be a way for some to escape from the workload (escape hypothesis) and, therefore, does not necessarily have a positive impact on productivity. In fact, the empirical evidence is not clear in this regard, as experts warn that the higher productivity (in the cases detected) could be explained by the Hawthorne effect, which suggests that when we study a case, the person studied feels valued, and by feeling valued, performs better.
“Some studies on the 4-day workweek show results linked to higher productivity”.
The working day from 4 to debate
At the same time there are detractors of 4-day weeks. One of the main criticisms is that if the number of hours is not significantly reduced, the effect of the compressed week can be the opposite of what is expected. For example, if you go from a 5/40 week to a 4/40 week, meaning that every day you will work 10 hours, plus travel time and lunch, it can mean reducing the time needed for yourself and others to practically zero, which can lead to extra stress.
In the same vein, other critics suggest that 4/40 may affect women more negatively than men, since, if women continue to be the main caregivers, an increase in the number of hours worked per day (even if it results in a day off) may again generate more stress than the usual situation.
New proposals on working time management
The debate is on, and this new momentum and interest in the 4-day workweek is an opportunity to rethink work organisation and the workload itself. Some suggest that it’s time to go further, and to stick with 5/40, 4/40, 4/35 or even 3/36; in other words, to stay in the same paradigm only improved with slight changes.
The London-based NEF (New Economics Foundation) suggests, for example, to promote 21-hour work weeks. This radical change, in line with what the intellectuals of the early 20th century envisioned, would allow for a new way of living, consuming, caring and working. While Desigual’s new initiative involves sharing the reduction in salary between the company and the employee, NEF’s case is an invitation to share the work, and therefore assumes that the employee should be able to live on half of his or her salary. We need many further steps along the way to make this a reality.
However, 4-day workweeks in organizations may be a feasible reality in the short term. Both for those who are convinced and for those who are against it, these could be some suggestions regarding its possible implementation:
- Always start with a pilot test. Test the results, monitor them, and expand the test to a new group.
- Decide on the parameters of the new working day: will we continue to work 40, 35 or 32 hours? It would be interesting to encourage discussions between different teams to find out possible implications.
- Ensure that all departments are covered on all working days. Even if employees work four days, coverage should remain the same. Therefore, new coordination is essential.
- Be flexible with flexibility. It’s not necessary for all employees to have the same day off. It would be desirable to pool the needs of both the employees and the organization, and come up with the best solution.
- Take customers (internal and external) into account. Each employee knows when they have their work peaks, and how they can provide quality services and products to their customers, whether internal or external. It is necessary for each employee to keep in mind their own weekly schedule and find a fit between the needs of customers and their needs.
- Foster a culture of trust and accountability. As with teleworking, the new compressed working hours require a new culture based on trust and individual responsibility.
- Measure, measure, measure. For doubters and optimists alike, it’s crucial to measure the impact of the new working hours on the organization itself, the customers, individuals and their families. A possible new way of organizing work and personal life may be waiting just around the corner.