On Monday TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady laid down the gauntlet at the Trade Union Congress: This century, the four-day working week could become the new normal for workers. She sees unions as key in achieving this: “In the nineteenth century, unions campaigned for an eight-hour day. In the twentieth century, we won the right to a two-day weekend and paid holidays. So, for the twenty-first century, let’s lift our ambition again. I believe that in this century we can win a four-day working week, with decent pay for everyone.”

The appeal for employees must be near-universal; who couldn’t use an extra day in the week? Think of it: time to see friends, take up a hobby, go out as a family…or just get those household chores done. But surely this would come at the expense of industry?

Actually, not so much. There was one large-scale real-life study of the 4-day working week carried out in New Zealand earlier this year. Perpetual Guardian, a NZ company managing trusts and wills, did a two-month stint where staff worked four eight-hour days per week, but were paid as they were for working five. Academics came along for the ride and took quantitative and qualitative data before, during and after the trial.

The results are pretty stunning: Not only did staff feel that they had considerably better work-life balance (up from 54% before the trial to 78% afterwards), but employees also performed better in their jobs and reported enjoying their roles more too. Stress levels fell by 7% and overall life satisfaction among employees went up 5%.

Jarrod Harr at the University of Auckland suggested that employees in the trial worked more effectively in the time they had: “They worked out where they were wasting time and worked smarter, not harder,” he said, “Supervisors said staff were more creative, their attendance was better, they were on time, and they didn’t leave early or take long breaks. Their actual job performance didn’t change when doing it over four days instead of five.” The company’s founder, Andrew Barnes, was so impressed that he is now looking into maintaining the four-day working week long-term. It’s early days, but it seems that the benefits of a shorter working week are clear for business as well as employees.

The five-day week has been the norm for almost a century now, first instituted by industrialists like Henry Ford. In the 1920s, John Maynard Keynes predicted that we’d be working a 15-hour working week within 100 years (so that’s erm, about now). He saw technological advancements as the key to freeing us humans from manual labour, but it hasn’t worked out that way. Five-day weeks are still firmly entrenched in our business culture – and it feels like a huge risk for most companies to disrupt that, given the competitive edge they could lose.

But in our age of immediate communication and remote working, has the 5-day week lost its cache? One social enterprise in Wales is now testing the four-day week, with positive feedback from employees. Which other forward-thinking business leaders in this country will dare to try something new?

Written by Claire Lamont

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