There is something naturally exciting about the idea of a four-day working week. Fridays off! More time to catch up on chores, go to yoga, look after mum, take up pottery or whatever else excites you about the thought of some more time for yourself.
However, you don’t have to think about it for very long before a few problems start to appear. Maybe you’re only working three days anyway, or already six or seven, so what then? What happens to the kids – are they still going to school? Will it be any easier to get into the doctor, hairdresser or supermarket? How am I going to shake off that Friday feeling of unfinished business, when I have less time to fit in my increasing workload?
For some, the idea of a four-day working week will mean something very different, than to those who have the privilege to consider increasing their leisure time. For businesses as a whole and for individual people, a four-day week could be the enabler for working seven days a week, to stay open longer, to do more overtime, or to take on a second job. What currently seems like a gift in the name of better work-life balance will become the norm, as wages adjust over time and we realise we feel the same pressure of work despite having hoped that we would spend less time doing it.
On the one hand, there’s an inevitability to the idea of working fewer hours as society progresses; but it’s not a trend that’s been showing itself very clearly. We’re working pretty much the same hours now as we did 30 years ago1, and this after not only a period of massive technological advancement but also the introduction of the European Working Time Directive. So, given that any organisation could decide to drop its working hours at any time, what do we mean by the four-day working week? Are we looking for the government to act? Or big business? Or, are we collectively talking up an emergent pattern that we can see starting to happen anyway, in the way that home-working and mobile connectivity have become the norm.
The big question that all this raises for me is what it’s saying about the ways that we’ve become accustomed to working. The reason we’re talking about this is the same reason we’re talking about the need for more ‘authentic leadership’ and for organisations to be ‘values-led’. Even the accepted concept of ‘work-life balance’ reinforces a split personality, where you could do more living if only work didn’t get in the way. The way we’re working isn’t working2. But instead of tackling the deep-rooted issues that lead to burnout, mental health issues and an emptiness in many people’s working lives, we’re contemplating a solution that’s basically saying, “let’s be cruel to ourselves for only four days a week instead of five”.
So, maybe the way around some of the logistical challenges of the four-day week is actually treating people a little better in the way that we organise and manage work; greater flexibility, more autonomy and discretion about how and when we work. A new approach to leadership that pays far greater attention to the relational and social aspects of our work, rather than our current obsession with outcomes and measures. All of these will go much further than dangling the carrot of a four-day week that will simply remain out of reach for many in our society.
- Schwartz, T., McCarthy, C. & Gomes, J (2010) The Way We're Working Isn't Working: The Four Forgotten Needs That Energize Great Performance. New York: Free Press