There are currently 5.5 million more jobs than unemployed people in the U.S. At the end of April, the number of people quitting their jobs remained steady at 4.4 million, while layoffs and discharges hit a low of 1.2 million. Hiring and retention, therefore, are major concerns across industries, with all the smart talk – and action – revolving around increased flexibility for employees.
It isn’t difficult to see that this stems from the compulsory work-from-home experiment so many industries have been forced to take part in over the last two years, with the final analysis showing that 2021 proved the most profitable for U.S. corporations since 1950’s post World War II America.
Work-from-home, hybrid arrangements, flexible hours — employers are bending over backwards to gain a competitive advantage and boost hiring and retention rates as The Great Resignation holds sway, continuing the sea change in attitudes toward working life and ushering in a potentially permanent restructured approach.
Welcome to the 4-day week.
UK’s 3-Day Week Experiment – 1974
When Elvis Costello opened his debut album My Aim Is True with Welcome to the Working Week in 1977, he was singing about the 5-day week and citing productivity issues such as: “I feel like a juggler running out of hands” and “You wouldn’t believe how I felt when they buried me alive.” Ouch.
Of course, while critics and music fans loved him, the great and the good paid no attention to the angry young chap – possibly because they couldn’t understand a word he was spitting; or maybe because the UK’s 3-day week was only a few years in the rear mirror, part of oppressive measures to conserve electricity, which few remembered fondly.
However, the 3-day work week had not wreaked havoc on the UK economy. The forced experiment lasted from the start of January until March 07, 1974. In that time, many eyes were watching closely to see what happened – and expectations were dire, with experts on all sides predicting economic calamity.
The actual result was the wholesale agreement that “the British worker demonstrated surprising resilience.” A result reflected today, of course, by the response shown internationally to the pandemic restrictions and the outcomes of the forced work-from-home experiments mentioned at the top.
Stunningly, there was a fall of only 1.5 in consumer spending during the first quarter of that period – helped along by an increase in spending on alcohol, possibly to stave off the disappointment of broadcasting closing down at 10.00pm, street lights turned off, and long days with nothing to do but sit around moaning or dance around drinking.
The fact is, as mentioned, disaster was expected by highly educated and informed people. Pretty much all economists predicted bad outcomes, particularly in the form of massive production losses, which didn’t ultimately happen. British workers surprised everybody by adapting to the challenge as if the war effort had returned.
Production levels were far ahead of what was expected from a 3-day week, with a predicted 40 percent decline landing somewhere between 20-10 percent. The workers simply worked harder and produced more – with no loss in quality – in less time.
Many theories arose as to why that was and the more cynical opined, with amazing arrogance, that the results demonstrated British workers, under normal circumstances, didn’t work as hard or as diligently as they were capable of doing.
A “thank you” would have been nice!
Interestingly, loss of earnings fell way below expectations, too, with a drop of only 4.5 percent – providing a solid answer to the low drop in spending, of course. Reasons for this included extra hours with overtime pay, wage guarantees and unemployment benefits – although unemployment didn’t rise above 1 million.
The prediction, from the National Economic Development Council, had cited a number of 4 million unemployed, should the 3-day week continue through February, which it did.
Despite some industries being hit harder than others, the bottom line is that the predicted disaster of the 3-day week simply didn’t materialize. The finding, according to The New York Times in 1974, was that “productivity can be increased under duress.”
A misinterpretation, of course, of the spirit that rose to the occasion and created the results that stunned the so-called experts. However, duress, like the spirit that rose to the occasion, isn’t a long-term solution.
And that’s a problem.
International 4-Day Week Trials – 2022
Not only is talk of a 4-day work week getting louder internationally, trials are already underfoot. Some people see the (potential) move as natural progress. The 6-day work week became the 5-day work week; the 5-day work week becomes the 4-day work week. Of course, that type of progress leaves some future generation with the 0-day work week, which does lead to thoughts of balance, moderation, and common sense.
Making trials a great idea.
With the cry: “We are taking the 4-day week global!” not-for-profit organization 4 Day Week Global has shown real guts and verve in organizing international trials, from which extremely valuable data will be collected and analyzed. Created, implemented and run by Charlotte Lockhart and Andrew Barnes, pilot programs are already running in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the biggest of them across the UK, whose trial kicked off on 6 June.
Good start, then.
Described as: “A coordinated, 6-month trial of a four-day working week, with no loss in pay for employees” the UK version is partnered with 4-Day Week UK Campaign, think tank, Autonomy, and researchers at Cambridge University, Oxford University, and Boston College.
It works like this.
- The UKs experiment, for example, includes 3,000 workers across 70 companies.
- Workers will receive 100 percent pay for 80 percent of time.
- Worker commitment is to 100 percent productivity.
According to Joe O’ Connor, pilot manager for 4 Day Week Global: “The 4-day week challenges the current model of work and helps companies move away from simply measuring how long people are ‘at work’, to a sharper focus on the output being produced. 2022 will be the year that heralds in this bold new future of work.”
Obviously, some doubt can be raised here. Those running the programs appear to be strong advocates of the 4-day week, rather than dispassionate intellectuals running an experiment with open minds. Not that this will matter as long as the data collated is done so objectively and published transparently.
Because there are clear potential downsides.
Professor of Sociology at Boston College, Juliet Schor, who is lead researcher for the pilot, said: “We’ll be analyzing how employees respond to having an extra day off, in terms of stress and burnout, job and life satisfaction, health, sleep, energy use, travel and many other aspects of life.”
A cross-industry pilot, education, banking, financial services, consultancy, food and beverage, digital marketing, online retail, skincare, automotive supply, animation, IT software training, recruiting, and many more are signed up and currently engaged in the 4-day week trial.
Popularity and Productivity
The idea of a 32-hour work week is a popular one. In a Ladders survey, 79 percent of workers said they have already left or would leave a 5-day week job for a 4-day week job – provided no drop in salary is required. This is backed up by many similar results across many companies, which implies that people either love the idea itself, or they have fully thought out the implications of committing to 100 percent productivity, with no drop in quality, over a shorter period, and are confident it’s a good fit for them.
Probably the former, then.
The results from the UK forced experiment in 1974 provide insight into what people can achieve short-term when challenged. Long-term is potentially something else. Certainly, the trials taking place now are hugely important, with the UK’s being the biggest among them. Still, it would be good to have in depth information about how individual companies are structuring the working week, dealing with that heady balance between the needs of employees and the needs of the business.
For example, will everybody work Monday-Thursday and enjoy Friday off? What if that clashes with the needs of the business having to deal with clients and customers who expect them to be available?
Will each employee choose their own day off, with everybody else – both internally and externally – having to adapt?
“I feel like a juggler running out of hands.”
Or will there be a set number of days chosen by the company, which can be cherry-picked from by individuals, with everything then organized around that? (Not that this solves all potential issues.)
The response to everyday life under a 4-day week for millions of individuals remains to be seen. How many life-chores are accomplished after work during the week? Will they now build into a large pile until that precious day off, when they will need to be attended to in one go?
“You wouldn’t believe how I felt when they buried me alive.”
The questions of stress and burnout, brought up by Juliet Schor above, are good questions. The question of productivity vs. quality is also a good one, particularly over the long-term. The British surprised everybody back in 1974 with their short-term burst of intense productivity, apparently relieved by heavy drinking sessions during all those spare hours.
But how long would it have continued?
Six month international trials involving huge numbers of workers across industries do seem encouraging, so long as there isn’t, for example, a nine month burnout point built into the human condition that none of us are aware of at this point.
What would we do then? Mandate 12-hour days and encourage more short breaks during them? Revert to the 5-day week and deal with hiring and retention some other way? The question of how teams will function smoothly still looms large, as does the question of how flexible the whole thing is if the employer dictates the day off to employees.
Still, six months from now the data will start to roll in and the world will be keenly watching, unless the answer has already become clear by then.
Is it Friday yet?