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How would a four-day work week impact us?

As the government decides to give companies the power to choose a four-day work week, a look at some of the ways this could impact productivity and wellbeing

Watching the clock
Watching the clock (Malvestida Magazine/Unsplash)

This week, the Labour Ministry of the government of India announced that under new labour codes, it would allow companies the flexibility of creating a four-day work week, something that global companies like Microsoft have experimented with in certain markets. France has flirted with the four-day, 32-hour work week, and countries like Finland and New Zealand are currently toying with the idea as well—in New Zealand, an estate-planning company called Perpetual Guardian ran a four-day work week trial which has been hailed as a success, with the Kiwi government closely watching it as a model that could be implemented in the country. In the Netherlands, the average weekly working time is about 29 hours per week—the lowest of any industrialized nation—as the Harvard Business Review (HBR) noted in an August 2019 article.

However, it must be said that for an idea that was first floated almost 100 years ago—economist John Maynard Keynes is widely quoted as having predicted that workers around the world would have a 15-hour work week within the century in 1930— the four-day week has remained an aberration and an experimental strategy despite all the automation we have achieved.

The four-day work week has distinct advantages for office workers, even if the total number of hours worked per week is 40, or 10 hours of work every day. In most polls and surveys conducted among workers after implementation of the four-day rule, results have usually been positive with employees reporting better productivity and work-life balance. Following a survey conducted by HBR and Henley Business School among 505 business leaders and more than 2,000 employees in the UK to better understand the impact of the four-day week on Britain’s modern workforce, half of the business leaders surveyed reported that employee satisfaction had improved, employee sickness had reduced, and the company had saved money into the bargain. “Among workers, 77% identified a clear link between the four-day week and better quality of life. The practice is judged particularly attractive by 75% of the Gen Z and Gen X people we surveyed — and rather than relaxing, they’re using their additional time to upskill, volunteer, and build side hustles. Two-thirds (67%) of Gen Z respondents said a four-day workweek influences who they want to work for,” wrote Ben Laker and Thomas Roulet in HBR.

As most of us experience, a working day is never exactly 8 hours long. Calls get extended into the evening, and long commutes during which we try (and mostly fail) to be productive eat into the day. Meanwhile, survey after survey has shown that employees don’t actually work more than 3-4 hours per day, not just because of what experts like to call “the distractions of modern life” but because sustained productivity beyond that is pretty much impossible to achieve—we work best in 25-30 minute stretches followed by 10-15 minutes of free time. It probably makes sense to focus more for a couple of extra bursts every day if it means getting an extra day off at the end of the week.

A shorter work-week also means we would have more time to fulfil personal chores, spend more time with family and friends, and develop different interests, all of which can help reduce overall stress levels. Some experts suggest that it may also help create a more diverse workforce as families may find it easier to share responsibilities at home and in childcare—if spouses take different days of the week off, for instance—instead of one partner (usually the woman) taking a career break.

Ultimately, however, it all depends on how interested and empathetic the organisation and employers are in creating a fair workplace with reasonable expectations of productivity and targets. If employees have to routinely work into the night or on weekends in order to complete assignments and fulfil targets, it hardly matters whether the weekend is two or three days long.

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