Gone are the days of 9-5, Monday to Friday

The shift from a six-day working week to a five-day working week happened almost 100 years ago and is the accepted norm – but does it need to be? Could the COVID-19 emergency be the trigger for enterprises to transform the traditional working week?

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced enterprises around the world into arrangements that break all kinds of traditional working habits. Millions of employees are now working from home and collaborating with colleagues via videoconferencing. The conventional nine-to-five working day and Monday-to-Friday working week has been disrupted, at least for the time being.

Could now be the time to introduce a four-day working week? Essentially what this would mean is that instead of the working week being Monday to Friday, it would last from Monday to Thursday, with a three-day weekend. It has advocates at the very highest level. In fact, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Adern has floated the idea of a four-day work week to help rebuild the country’s economy in the aftermath of COVID-19.

Making the case for new work hours

Companies and countries that have experimented with a four-day working week have reported positive results from closing workplaces on Fridays and giving staff a longer weekend. In 2019, Microsoft Japan trialed the four-day week and found that its sales increased by almost 40%. Employees took 25% less time off during the trial period and 92% of workers said they liked the shorter week. These are particularly interesting results, given that Japan has some of the longest working hours in the world.

In late 2018, Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand financial services company, switched all of its 240 staff from a five-day week to a four-day week, on full pay. Academics from Auckland University of Technology were brought in to monitor the trial, and again, results were positive: productivity increased by 20%, there was no drop in the total amount of work done, staff stress levels fell from 45% to 38% and work-life balance scores increased from 54% to 78%. According to a study by Henley Business School in the UK, 77% of workers said a four-day week improved their quality of life.

The discussion may have gone more mainstream, but there are still wider aspects to factor in. Not all jobs could just simply switch to a four-day working week and compress the same number of tasks into a shorter timeframe. It would need to be adapted for shift workers, such as nurses and refuse collectors. The value of key workers has become apparent in the coronavirus crisis, so they should benefit from a reduction in the working week as well. When the city of Gothenberg in Sweden introduced a six-hour day for some nurses, the nurses became healthier, happier and more energetic. This reduced hours per day is a model that may prove to be more useful to non-office jobs.

What challenges exist?

However, there has been pushback from companies against the concept of a four-day work week. In 2019 the Wellcome Trust scrapped its four-day week plans because it considered the exercise too operationally complex, particularly in terms of how to staff backoffice and support functions. Other employer complaints include believing it costs too much and that it will be too complicated to supervise employees. A UK study backed by political party Labour and written by economist Robert Skidelsky warned against increasing exhaustion if workers attempted to cram five days’ work into four days.

The UK’s CBI has also stated its opposition to the four-day week as it feels it could be incongruous with flexible working, something it sees as “increasingly essential.” In contrast, according to YouGov, 63% of Britons say they support a four-day full-time working week: that could, however, be because they work longer hours than anywhere else in the EU.

There is the customer service challenge too: companies that want to implement a Monday-to-Thursday working week cannot expect customers to not want their usual high level of service on a Friday. Employee job satisfaction versus customer satisfaction is clearly an important dynamic.

The role of technology

Digital tools can play a role in supporting the four-day week. Artificial intelligence (AI)-powered customer service solutions like chatbots and robotic process automation (RPA) could manage customer service requirements by giving customers an alternative support mechanism that doesn’t rely on office-based staff or indeed human workers at all. These tools could potentially manage the Friday customer service workload if the company had given human workers a three-day weekend.

For a long time, people have been worried about AI taking their jobs, so could the four-day week be the catalyst for discussing how to balance that equation? If workers are able to complete five days’ worth of work in four days and be as or more productive in less time, that may create extra room in the workplace for additional workers, those whose repetitive jobs have been replaced by AI tools.

And furthermore, if the base level of work per person is five days’ worth of work per week, and humans could do that amount of work in four days, where does that leave AI, automation and other technology solutions? There is a conversation to be had about how this model would work in sharing jobs more equitably and what the role of AI and automation in the workforce would be.

Robots and other automation and AI tools could ease the overall workload on human workers by taking repetitive tasks off workers’ plates. Automation could come into play and potentially give workers in production lines and other manual jobs the possibility of a four-day week by picking up the slack. According to research by Ricoh Europe, 57% of European workers believe technology will bring about a four-day working week in the near future as it improves their productivity and efficiency.

An idea whose time has come?

And while longer-term, post-COVID-19 economic damage seems an inevitability, a four-day working week might help some companies survive, says Andrew Barnes, CEO of Perpetual Guardian. “Many businesses are considering or implementing reduced hours and reducing pay as well, and the methodology of the four-day week trial is to have a safe, renewed focus on productivity. The process eliminates much of the unproductive busyness while reinforcing trust between employers and employees. Businesses who do this will have a better chance of surviving this temporary crisis and maintaining employment for their people.”

Could a longer weekend be the answer to a more equitable future? I would like to think so.

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Steve Harris

I’ve been writing about technology for around 15 years and today focus mainly on all things telecoms - next generation networks, mobile, cloud computing and plenty more. For Futurity Media I am based in the Asia-Pacific region and keep a close eye on all things tech happening in that exciting part of the world.