With productivity increases close to zero since the 2008 financial crisis, there's is a growing expectation that a broader shift to shorter working hours will happen in 2021.
A recent report by the thinktank Autonomy argued that the UK's chancellor, Rishi Sunak, could prevent a steep rise in unemployment if he supported companies moving to a four-day week. It said a majority of 50,000 firms studied would be able to cope with the change through higher productivity or by raising prices. It urged the government to investigate ways of rolling out a four-day week, starting with the public sector.
When Unilever said in November it would move staff in its New Zealand office to a four-day week on the same pay, the maker of Dove soap and Magnum ice-cream which employs more than 150,000 people worldwide, gave the kind of high-profile endorsement for flexible working that campaigners have been waiting for. Why? Because the evidence shows that a shorter working week leads to higher productivity.
A few weeks after the Unilever announcement Awin, an online marketing firm, said its 1,000 employees - including more than 300 based in the UK - would move to a four-day week after trialing several forms of flexible working.
The initiative follows a similar trial by Microsoft in its Japanese operations and Toyota’s adoption of reduced hours in several of its factories. Microsoft said in November that employees increased productivity by 40 percent, more than making up for the 20 percent drop in attendance by staff. The US tech firm restricted meetings to half an hour and changed many of its working practices as part of part of a summer project that allowed greater participation by staff teams.
“Its time has come,” says the economist Aidan Harper, who has championed the four-day week with colleagues at the New Economics Foundation thinktank and a growing number of political organisations across Europe.
Harper is the co-author of a new book - The Case for a Four-Day Week - that sets out the practical arguments for a reduction in the hours spent at work with no loss of pay. He says that during much of the 20th-century companies were forced, either by trade union action, government policy or labour shortages to give workers a large slice of the gains in productivity – the output of each worker per hour – but this ran out of steam in the 1980s.
Harper, like the economist Lord Skidelsky, who advised Labour’s former shadow chancellor John McDonnell to adopt shorter hours on a sector by sector basis - rather than a blanket approach - wants the government to swing behind the move to improve the UK’s low ranking among European countries.
New Zealand is suggesting companies consider adopting a 4 day week, as is Canada. Back in 2019, Microsoft Japan introduced a 4-day week after demonstrating that the benefits went far beyond a long weekend. More...