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The historical struggle for free time cropped up again this week as the TUC called for a four-day working week for UK workers. Is it about time businesses shared the wealth from new technology in the form of additional time off, or will this lead to a plunge in productivity?
By this point, the weekend feels like an inviolable right. For many of us at least, those who are salaried, non-shift workers, it’s a fixture. We always, nominally at least, have Saturday and Sunday off.
Of course, if you have kids - or a busy social life - then what constitutes ‘off’ is open to conjecture. But while two days of wrangling a toddler isn’t necessarily rest, those people would still see the weekend as a chance to spend time with loved ones.
The weekend, or, the ‘week-end’ as it was called when it entered the popular imagination, is relatively new. One of the first documented uses of the term is in the British academic quarterly Notes and Queries.
An 1879 issue noted that:“In Staffordshire, if a person leaves home at the end of his week’s work on the Saturday afternoon to spend the evening of Saturday and the following Sunday with friends at a distance, he is said to be spending his week-end at So-and-so.”
At that time, the work week ended on Saturday. The ‘week-end’ referred to the Saturday evening and the Sabbath. That said, the phenomenon of ‘Saint Monday’ was common: a long but unofficial tradition of absenteeism where workers took Mondays off work to recover from their weekend bacchanal.
The 19th and 20th century were periods of intense labour struggle, too. Central to that struggle was the reduction of time spent at work. “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will!” the famous labour slogan declared.
This historical struggle for free time cropped up again this week during the TUC’s annual congress. “In the 19th century, unions campaigned for an eight-hour day. In the 20th century, we won the right to a two-day weekend and paid holidays,” said Frances O’Grady, the TUC’s general secretary.
“So, for the 21st 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. It’s time to share the wealth from new technology, not allow those at the top to grab it for themselves.”
According to Kate Bell, the TUC’s head economist, the ambition for a shorter week is realistic. Bell noted that the TUC is acutely aware of the UK’s prolonged productivity slump, but pointed to the substantial promises being made around new technology.
“We’re being promised lots of productivity improvements by new technology, and of course they haven’t turned up yet,” Bell told us. There are government estimates suggesting that AI and autonomous tech could boost the economy by £200bn a year.
“If we do get that productivity boost to the economy, how should we use that to make workers’ lives better? From looking at our history, one of the ways has been shorter working hours.”
According to the TUC, what productivity gains there have been in the past forty years haven’t been fairly shared with workers. The labour share of income has declined, and inequality has widened. “What we’re asking is: ‘what would be a better way to share the proceeds from growth?’” said Bell.
The TUC demand foresees the shorter working week being phased in by the end of the century. But in other countries, it’s already happening. This year, IG Metall, Germany’s largest union, won the right to a 28-hour working week and a 4.3% pay rise.
Before heading into the negotiations, IG Metall’s president identified the union’s priorities clearly: “The value of time and the value of money will carry equal weight.” The TUC is more flexible on implementation, however.
“We want to think about this carefully,” said Bell. “We want the government to set up a future of work commission and we want unions and experts to help define how technology might be used to benefit workers. What we don’t want is to be prescriptive. We don’t want to say Monday to Thursday is the correct working week for everyone.
“We recognise the changing nature of the economy. Not everyone works 9 - 5, Monday to Friday. But it’s certainly worth thinking about. The promise of technological progress, after all, used to be more leisure, more time with our families, more time with our friends.”
Tom, an FD at a medium sized manufacturer, isn’t necessarily against the TUC’s idea. But he has some reservations. “With regard to the four-day week, I guess it depends,” he said.
“I think the TUC were wanting the same money for fewer hours. I can't really see that flying for us, but then in the SME sector we can see our MD/owner at the end of the office, and the staff (without being necessarily privy to anything confidential) would generally know he is not ostentatiously wealthy (à la Mike Ashley).
“I can see a distinction opening up between people who could decide to work from home, compared to others with more transactional work that are somewhat chained to the desks. Having said that, a lot of our work is not specific to a particular day, so some element of compression of hours could work.” But, he added, “the manufacturing side would have to continue over the five days, in my view”.
‘Compression of hours’, as Tom calls it, is indeed one way to afford a four-day week. That’s four days working 10 hour shifts. Hours worked don’t reduce - but the days spent working do.
The 55-person digital agency LAB is trialling a variation of this at the moment, apportioning the days off to remain open five days a week. “We’ve given each department its own autonomy to ensure there’s cover for the five days,” said LAB’s finance director Rachel Howe.
LAB’s employees can still work a five-day week if they’d like - or, they can work a four-day week where they still work their 37.5 hours, but they work it into four longer days. Pay isn’t affected. Howe’s assessment of the four-day week is positive - both personally and professionally.
“Revenue forecasts for the trial period look good. There’s no impact on revenue as far as I can see,” said Howe. And as for her extra day off? “I’m training for a marathon so I’m using my Friday to do my long run.”
As LAB’s trial begins, another one ended on the other side of the world. In 2015, Treehouse, an education startup based in Oregon, made waves by moving to a four day week. At the time, the company’s CFO Michael Watson was optimistic.
“The added sense of freedom and ownership over your life and just time – it’s something that you’ll never get back,” he told us then. Three years later, the company has reverted to a five day week.
Returning to the five day week isn’t a permanent decision, Watson said. “We did a layoff related to the timing of a funding round. It’s just didn’t seem appropriate to continue to offer that given the context.”
The scheme was also becoming a “distraction”, he added. “It’s all the press would ever talk about, and internally we were getting embroiled in overly philosophical conversations of what the four-day week consist of.”
Despite ending it, Watson still views the four-day week positively. “It was an amazing perk,” he said. “The intangible benefits of a four-day week are real.” If it were to come back, he mooted, Treehouse would perhaps opt to formalise it, rather than the informal agreement that governed it previously.
“If we bring it back, we would have to turn it into a policy. It’s something we’d start temporarily if teams are hitting their goals, as an incentive, maybe in the summers.”
According to Aidan Harper, a campaigner for the 4 Day Week Campaign, “It’s not just about having a day off”, it’s about “a reduction of working hours” too.
The concerns over the reduced work time, he said, is like “history repeating itself”. “It’s exactly the same concerns people had when we introduced the weekend or the eight-hour workday. But the world didn’t collapse in on itself then - and it won’t now.”
There’s the economic arguments, too. “The biggest cause of sick leave in the UK is work-related stress and the biggest cause of work-related stress is overwork. According to Harper, there’s a crisis of overwork in the UK: our work is making us sick.
“Not only is that a human catastrophe, from the economic point of view it’s detrimental to our ability to work. The UK is in a productivity slump - and one of the reasons is the way we work and the hours we put in.”
A look at OECD statistics does not show a positive correlation between working longer hours and an economy performing better. In fact, the statistics suggest the reverse: the fewer hours a country works, the better it performs economically. In terms of GDP per hour worked, the UK lags behind Scandinavian countries and Germany, both nations with shorter working days and robust economies.
“These countries work less hours than we do and yet have far higher levels of wealth per person. They’re stronger economies, they’re more productive than us and people are wealthier,” said Harper.
“The country that works the longest hours in Europe is Greece. What direction should we be going into as an economy? Are we looking to Greece or Germany?”
Her extra day off hasn’t been all marathon training, added LAB’s Howe. “I hate to say it, but I have also caught up on chores,” she said. Alongside her marathon training, the day off has created time for more quotidian concerns, too. “It allows me to have the Saturday and Sunday as free days.”
Howe’s point is an important one. An extra day off isn’t about idleness, it’s about all of the unpaid labour we do over and above our waged work. One of the major arguments for a shorter week is that it gives more time outside waged work to perform other work.
For women, who still bear the brunt of this unpaid labour, an extra day is particularly important. But for everyone, too: it’s an extra day to complete the chores and care responsibilities that so often eat into our free time.
All of the toddler wrangling, shopping, cleaning and the emotional labour we perform is work, too. So perhaps all we need is a bit more time. To rest and, indeed, to work.
This article was originally posted on our sister site, AccountingWEB.