Has the 'eight-hour-a-day, five-day work week' outlived its purpose?

Europe's World

Citizens' Europe

Picture of Andrew Barnes
Andrew Barnes

Founder of Perpetual Guardian and 4 Day Week innovator

By the beginning of 2018, when Perpetual Guardian began to experiment with the possibility of a ‘4 Day Week’, it was already clear that the eight-hours-a-day, five-day week was no longer fit for purpose in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the era of digital hyper-connectivity, when people are never truly ‘off work’.

Working in the City of London in the 1980s, I saw first-hand that longer hours can be the enemy of productivity and well-being. My boss experienced a stress- and exhaustion-related, very public mental collapse in the office and it didn’t cause a ripple in upper management. In that culture, people were regarded as disposable and replaceable. If you couldn’t keep up, if the environment broke you, that was your problem.

This individualistic, survival-of-the-fittest ethos is now commonplace in the world of work. The gig economy is both expressive of this philosophy and built upon it. Today’s gig workers, if they want to make a living, are often subject to the same long working hours that ‘City’ workers faced 30 years ago, without the benefits that employees have such as annual leave, sick pay or retirement savings. The standard rules that are supposed to govern work in 2020 were hard-earned over decades of labour organisation and industrial action, but a steady slippage in the rules of how we work and an opacity in how we measure the value of work means workers are suffering and organisations are consequently not functioning optimally.

[When] workers can eliminate all time-wasting activities and focus entirely on productive work, they can achieve their usual output in 80% of the time

The term ‘work-life balance’ has been in vogue for years, but what has been missing is a calculus that allows people to be their best at work and at home while ensuring organisations maintain their productivity and profitability. The ‘4 Day Week’ was conceived as a model of work fit for the 21st century: 100% of the agreed output in 80% of the time, for 100% compensation.

It does not constitute a rejection or reimagining of the eight-hour day, per se; rather, it is a productivity-focused, reduced-hour model which says workers can eliminate all time-wasting activities and focus entirely on productive work, they can achieve their usual output in 80% of the time. For some people, this works best as four standard (eight-hour) days, with one paid day off a week. Others prefer to work five truncated days, to a timetable that allows them to do the school run or avoid rush-hour traffic.

This ‘4 Day Week’ hypothesis was tested successfully in New Zealand, as Perpetual Guardian now runs a permanent 4 Day Week on an opt-in basis, and is now finding favour around the world.

Even in Japan, a country with a famously gruelling work culture, Microsoft Japan has embraced a 4 Day Week

In 2019, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev proposed a 4 Day Week across the country. This prompted his Labour Ministry to consult with employers and trade union. The result was a report which found that reducing working hours while maintaining pay levels may contribute to better health of employees and improved productivity and employability – key outcomes for one of the least productive of the world’s major economies.

In Finland, Prime Minister Sanna Marin, in comments about the potential for improvements in productivity and technology to lead to shorter working hours, called the 4 Day Week an “interesting idea” that is worth looking into.

Even in Japan, a country with a famously gruelling work culture, Microsoft Japan has embraced a 4 Day Week. Between April and October 2019, the company announced a trial, implemented it and reported an astonishing 40% uplift in productivity.

This model puts productivity first and reduces hours accordingly

A number of United Kingdom companies have also published results of their trials, including MCL Group in Brighton. Many more large organisations around the world are working with the not-for-profit 4 Day Week Global to establish their own version of the model.

As the 4 Day Week movement grows and evolves, we may well see the eight-hour day changing with it. With one of the best cases for a new model of work being the need to cut congestion to help address the climate disaster, it is nonsensical to maintain patterns which have most workers travelling on roads at broadly the same time every day. It is likewise indefensible to maintain a gig economy in which workers have no protections, including any limit to the hours they work.

This model puts productivity first and reduces hours accordingly – so to the question of whether work hours should be completely revamped, the answer is yes. A sustainable, profitable future in which we work less, but are more productive, engaged and satisfied, is within our grasp. This is a work revolution whose time has come.

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