The COVID-19 pandemic has already undoubtedly forced many previously unthinkable changes to the way we work. From remote working to the ongoing discussions around work/life balance, employee experience, and the great resignation, we are seeing a shift in priorities and attitudes to work happen in real-time.
A survey by Deloitte found that 22% of millennials wanted to leave their jobs because of a poor work/life balance, while research suggests that Gen Z are even more concerned with well-being and flexibility.
Increasingly, the 4-day week is becoming a lightning rod for discussions around stress, mental health, and productivity. Maybe it would make people happier, even increase their life expectancy, but how is it going to affect businesses? Can we really still get all our work done if we are given less time to do it?
I want to talk about how the 4-day week could impact productivity, but to do so, it’s necessary to understand something about the history of work: the centuries of struggle that shaped the working week as we know it, the ways in which our working patterns have become ingrained, and whether any of that still makes sense in the context of the modern office.
But first, a story.
Preamble: On Monks, Monasteries & Performance Management
There’s this old, apocryphal tale about a group of Buddhist monks who lived high in the mountains. Early each day, before morning prayers, the youngest monk would be tasked with catching the temple cat and tying him up.
One day, this young monk, covered in scratches and frustrated over this task, asked one of the elders why it was so necessary to tie up the cat each day. The elder explained in detail the deep spiritual significance of the assignment and the wisdom it would bring to the young monk.
Soon after, the monastery welcomed an honoured guest: an old Buddhist master – the master had grown up in this temple but had long ago moved away. His visit was the first time he had returned in decades.
When he saw the young monk attempting to catch the temple cat before the morning meditations, first he was amazed, and then he let out a deep and hearty laugh. He asked the boy: do you know why you do this each day?
Nervously, the young monk began to recite the story he had been told, began to speak of the great importance of the chore and the enlightenment he hoped to gain.
The old master chuckled and gently patted the boy on the head. All of that is nonsense, he said. He recalled that when he had been a boy in this same temple, there had been a particularly disruptive kitten who’s loud mewling interrupted their daily meditations. He had been the first tasked with tying up the cat to prevent the disturbance.
But long after the elders of his day had passed, along with that particularly noisy kitten, and after the master had himself moved away, it appeared that the monks of the temple had carried on this tradition of catching and tying up a cat each day. The original purpose of the task had been lost to time, and in its place, a great significance had been ascribed to it. They no longer knew why they did it. It was no longer necessary to do it.
And yet they persisted each day.
I like this story because it reminds us that there are many things we do each day without really understanding or questioning why we do them. They are just ingrained in our society. In our culture. When you take off a hat when going inside, it’s not out of concern for any fatal consequences. When you say bless you after someone sneezes, it’s not out of fear of demonic possession. It’s just what you’re supposed to do.
It makes you wonder: what else do we continue to do, even though it’s no longer necessary?
This was on my mind recently as I chatted with a friend who was preparing for a performance review with a new junior hire who had just completed her first 3 months with their company.
This person had diligently completed every task that had been assigned to her in those first few months. Her work was of an exceedingly high standard. Yet as my friend was preparing for this review, they were reflecting negatively on this person’s performance.
She was working so efficiently and so well, that each day, there would be empty time. There was no other work she could meaningfully do, and so she filled this time by scrolling through her phone.
At first, I thought, surely this is just an issue of perception. This person comes to the office every single day, and so she was visible on her phone. Had this person worked remotely, nobody would notice the time she spent on TikTok. They would only see the work, completed on time, and completed well.
But that is perhaps a whole other can of worms around remote working and productivity – one that I have already opened previously.
So instead, let’s take this in a different direction. What if the issue isn’t the technology that this young girl was using to scroll through in her down time. What if the issue is all the technology we use for work on a day-to-day basis. Technology that has seen productivity soar over the past 40 years. Technology that allows us to complete more and more work, in a fraction of the time it used to take.
What if the real issue is that we no longer need to spend 8 hours a day, five days a week, working? What if we no longer really know why we do so. The five-day week has become accepted; become tradition. Become significant. But should it be?
I’ll try and answer that, but fair warning: it’s going to be a long trek from here to get to how a 4-day week might impact productivity, because first, we need to go back in time.
A Brief History of the Five-Day Week
As the late anthropologist David Graeber observed, for much of human history, human work patterns were irregular: often requiring intense bursts of energy, followed by rest. For example, farming required heavy workloads around planting and harvesting seasons, but outside of those times, there would be little to do. Everything from building houses to cooking meals, to making shoes followed a similar pattern: work was completed, when necessary, to accomplish specific goals, and then it was done.
This irregularity came because the work was largely unsupervised. Even during medieval times, when relations between the workers and the feudal lords they toiled away in service of were staggeringly unequal, if the work was being completed, those lords cared little for how the peasants spent their time.
Indeed, even the idea of spending time is a relatively modern one. Certainly, the idea that your employer could buy your time would be completely alien to most workers outside of the last few hundred years of human civilization. This change was a gradual one, but really started to solidify in the 18th century at the dawn of the industrial revolution, coinciding with the proliferation of pocket-watches and personal time keeping devices.
“Time came to be widely seen as a finite property to be budgeted and spent, much like money. New time-telling devices allowed a worker’s time to be chopped up into uniform units that could be bought and sold. Factories required workers to punch the time clock upon entering and leaving”.
The 8 Hour Day
In early industrial Britain, factory owners looked to maximise their output. This required keeping their factories open for as long as possible, leading to the implementation of long working days – typically sunup to sundown. With wages low, it was often necessary for factory workers to work these long shifts just to make enough to get by.
With little education, representation, or choice, these workers often toiled away in terrible conditions, with shifts typically lasting between 10-18 hours per day, 6 days a week.
This would begin to change in the 19th century. An early proponent of the 8-hour workday was Welsh philanthropist and social reformer Robert Owen. Writing in 1817, Owen felt that the workday should be divided into thirds, giving equal time to work, rest, and play. His ideas would be taken up by the burgeoning radical labour movements across the industrialised world, with striking workers throughout the century campaigning with the slogan 8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest, 8 hours for what we will.
Yet despite some limited reforms across industrialised nations during this period which led to improved conditions and shorter working hours, progress was slow. While the Factories Act of 1847 granted women and children a 10-hour working day, for much of the century, the demands by workers gained little traction. Their strikes were met with overwhelming resistance. Not just the kind of disapproval in we are used to seeing in the media today, but with violence, bloodshed, and massacres.
Henry Ford & The Modern Work Week
Fast-forward to the dawn of the 20th century and things were still generally quite bleak for workers. While some trades had successfully fought for the implantation of an 8-hour day, most workers were still working around 12 hours a day.
And then, with the outbreak of the first world war, things finally started to change.
Amid another growing wave of strikes and unrest throughout the western world, Henry Ford was one of the first major titans of industry to take drastic action. On January 5th, 1914, the Ford Motor Company cut their shifts down to 8 hours per day, while at the same time, doubling the wages of their workers.
While Ford may have made this choice out of fear for the power labour movements were gaining at the time, he did reap the benefits of this decision. Productivity skyrocketed in Ford factories following this change, and within two years, Ford profits had doubled, going from $30 million to $60 million.
The decision had not been popular with rival companies and business owners of the day, but Ford’s success saw many other organisations follow suit in the years following.
By the middle of the 20th century, many western governments had ratified these changes, passing regulations that set 40 hours per week as the maximum and allowing workers to claim overtime pay for any hours worked beyond that.
The End of History
And so, we reach our present situation: the implementation of the 8-hour day and five-day week ended the fight between workers and employers and established a working model that stands the test of time. As American political scientist Francis Fukuyama put it, we’ve reached the end of history.
Except, that’s not really the whole story. For many labour organisations, the fight for shorter days, the fight for weekends, the fight for better working conditions: these were just the beginning. Even after the 5-day week was established, unions such as the IWW continued to push for a reduction of the working day. There was much cause to believe that advances in technology would free people to work less and less.
Yet, for many reasons throughout the 20th century – from the outbreak of the second world war to the Thatcher and Regan administrations dismantling the power of organised labour on both sides of the Atlantic, the calls for a reduced working week died out. The five-day week became immutable. Economist John Maynard Keynes’ prediction that by 2030, we’d all be working much shorter weeks was looking about as prophetic as The Jetsons.
Until very recently.
How Work Has Changed
The reason for the lengthy tangent above is to try and place the 5-day work week within a historical context. It was born out of industrialisation, out of the material conditions of the production line, in a specific period, for a specific type of work.
In the early 20th century, business owners like Henry Ford would have been able to make precise calculations about the number of cars or car parts that could be produced in a single day simply by looking at the shift schedule. For factory owners, there would be a direct line connecting inputs and outputs: workers could consistently produce a certain amount within a certain time frame.
Can we really say the work we do now still resembles that of the factory assembly line?
For the majority of people working today, our jobs are not the same, and neither are our skills. It’s not as easy to calculate how long a given task will take, nor is there an obvious correlation between time spent and the quality of the work.
One content writer could take three days to write thousands of words about the 4-day work week. Someone else might have been able to take half the time and produce a better piece of work. We will never know.
People have different skills and work at different speeds. It is better to judge the quality of work completed rather than the amount of time it takes.
As with the earlier anecdote about the young girl who takes to TikTok when her tasks are complete: what matters more, that the work is being done and done well, or that someone clocks in and out at the same time each day?
The obvious retort to this is that someone who has completed all their tasks could take on more work or learn a new skill; develop themselves within the work time that they have. But is that likely?
Putting aside for a moment that people doing more and more work beyond what they are paid to do sounds like a good deal for employers but has generally been seen to lead to quiet quitting among employees, is it reasonable to expect more and more output?
Studies show that, since the 70’s, productivity has increased at a rate 3.7x faster than wages. To put that more clearly, between 1979 and 2021, workers saw a 64.6% increase in productivity and only a 17.3% increase in pay.
More and more productivity has been demanded of workers, with comparatively little given back in terms of remuneration. It is likely that everything we are seeing now, from the great resignation to quiet quitting, the rise in remote working, the growing mass of strike action both in Britain and abroad, and the increasing push for a 4-day week – all of it is finally a reaction to a system that has ceaselessly demanded more time, more work, and more productivity for the last 40 years.
But that’s just conjecture. Let’s dig deeper into the subject of productivity.
Working Hours & Productivity
The Impact of 50+ Hour Weeks on Productivity
The results of a 2014 study from Stanford University made one thing abundantly clear: the more we work, the less productive we are.
The study found that productivity sharply declines after 50 hours per week, limiting how much can be achieved at that level of working. It went on to find that at 55 hours per week, productivity completely falls off a cliff – so much so, that for someone who has worked 70 hours per week, its statistically very unlikely that they will have achieved anything at all in the 15 hours beyond that 55-hour threshold.
When that study was first published, there was not a widely used term to describe the phenomena it identified. But now there is. Burnout.
Studies consistently show the effects of burnout: making people worse at completing tasks, more stressed, more anxious, and a clear link between burnout and higher levels of employee turnover.
Research has shown that over 1/3 of employees in the UK have left their jobs because of burnout.
It is interesting that when we talk about productivity, the basic assumption is usually that more time at work equals greater productivity. But that is demonstrably not the case.
So, what happens when we spend less time working?
The 4-Day Week & Productivity
A report from Henley Business School on the impact of a 4-day week makes for very interesting reading. Let’s look at the most eye-catching statistics:
- Companies that have adopted a 4-day week have found that staff are 78% happier, 70% less stressed and took 62% fewer days off with illness.
- Moving to a 4-day week has already saved these UK businesses £92 billion annually
- 63% of employers said that moving to a 4-day week has increased employee retention and made it easier to attract new staff
- It’s estimated that UK employees would drive 557.8 million fewer miles per week on average if they only worked 4 days, significantly reducing transport emissions
So working one day less per-week has been shown to make people happier, healthier, and it's less damaging to the environment. All wonderful, but none of that has anything to do with productivity.
Well, no single trial of a 4-day working week has yet conclusively shown any negative impact on productivity. In Sweden, experiments with a 4-day work week found that workers completed the same amount of work or more when working fewer days per week.
In the UK, a pilot program of around 70 companies trialling the 4-day week revealed that 46% of businesses involved felt their productivity remained around the same, while 34% found slight improvements in productivity and 15% found significant improvements.
As with the Ford Motor Company in the early 20th century, it seems working less actually makes people more productive. But why?
It appears that, when working fewer hours, workers become less fatigued, recover faster, and arrive at work with more energy and increased focus.
When working hours are reduced, individual productivity increases, and fewer mistakes are made. Further, this increased productivity leads to better collaboration among teams.
Gary Conroy, Chief executive at a Brighton-based skin care manufacturer that took part in the 4-day week pilot program was quoted in the NY Times as saying: “we’ve kind of gotten away from ‘That’s your job, not mine’, because we’re all trying to get out of here at five o’clock on a Thursday.”
So not only have 4-day weeks shown to make people less stressed, it also makes them better employees: more productive and more capable of working together to ensure tasks get completed on time.
While the five-day week made perfect sense for factory production, maybe the growing body of evidence does suggest that for modern office workers, a shorter week makes more sense.
To finish, I want to examine something just a little bit cheeky.
In an essay for The Economist in 1955, writer and historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson coined the idea that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
Parkinson was writing about bureaucracy, but it’s easy to apply this thought to the concept of the modern office. As a corollary to Parkinson’s law states: In a 10-hour day, you have time to fall twice as far behind on your commitments as in a 5-hour day.
Again, we like to think that more time working always leads to more productivity, but deep down, we know this to not be the case. Think of all the unproductive time you spend at work. I’m not talking about time spent resting or taking a break, as studies show this is another thing that actually boosts productivity.
I mean all the meetings that overrun that could have been emails in the first place. The administrative work that could be automated if your company invested in different technologies. The duplicated work that wastes everyone’s time.
A global study of more than 10,000 office workers found that British workers spend more than 5 hours per week doing work that a colleague has already completed.
Moreover, tasks such as responding to emails, attending meetings, and chasing for input, feedback, or signoff consume 60% of an average workers time at work.
It’s possible that, rather than allowing us to be productive, a typical 5-day work week affords us more time to be unproductive.
It’s worth thinking about, because I think we generally ascribe a significance to doing things in the same way that we always have: the five-day work week must be the best way to work, must be important, because if it wasn’t, then why would we be doing it?
Like a monk chasing a cat around a temple, maybe there are more productive ways we could be spending our time. We just haven’t realised it yet.