Amongst the reading I’ve done over the writing of this blog, Andrew Barnes’ The 4-Day Week (2020) is notable in that it focuses on the perspective of an organisation seeking to implement reduced working hours, filling a gap between academic economists like John Maynard Keynes and John Quiggin who’ve recognised that modern workers could take their productivity in the form of reduced working hours instead of more stuff, and working individuals like me interested in what we’d do with the time off.
The benefits of working reduced hours to individuals and society is a significant part of Barnes’ case, but the book’s main point is that reduced hours can work for organisations as well. He says his adventure was inspired by reading of a study in which workers reported doing productive work for only a few hours each day—they spent the rest socialising with work colleagues, checking social media, and so on—which, if true, implied that workers could significantly reduce their “working” hours without any loss of productivity. (The book’s conclusion even notes that Keynes’ famous prediction of a fifteen-hour work is fairly accurate if people really do spend so little of their working hours actually working.)
The book’s key argument is that four-day weeks or other sorts of flexibility must be the result of a contract between workers and management, on one hand satisfying cynical workers afraid that reduced hours just means more work in less nominal time and on the other hand satisfying performance-conscious managers afraid that reduced working hours means reduced output. Barnes is particularly critical of the kind of “flexibility” promoted by gig economy enthusiasts in which individuals are theoretically free to work whenever they like but are in practice subject to being called upon at any time.
Forming a contract is also about identifying what sort of flexibility works for a given organisation. While the book’s name mentions four-day weeks, some individuals or organisations might prefer six-hour days, or longer periods of annual leave, or more flexi-time, or something else. Barnes doesn’t suppose that simply changing from five days to four days will have all of the benefits noted above; he thinks it requires significant work and sets out a guide for organisations looking to make flexibility work for them and their employees. The contract also makes it explicit that reduced working hours come from increased productivity, and not simply doing less work.
By coincidence, I read Barnes’ book in the same week that the Conversation had John Quiggin suggesting there’s never been a better time for Australia to embrace the four-day week, the ABC had Hannah Furst on how to negotiate a four-day week, and Belgium gave workers the right to request a four-day week. Each go about it in a slightly different way: Quiggin is prepared to lose some productivity in exchange for shorter working hours; Furst simply works part-time for part-time pay; and Belgium expects workers to maintain the same number of hours whether they work four days or five. But the general thrust of it all is that five-day weeks aren’t an immutable fact of nature and there’s good evidence that four-day weeks can work.
In some commentary on four-day weeks prompted by similar news articles some months ago, one Siligong Valley poster observed that perhaps the most notable thing about studies of four-day weeks is that there are now so many of them, all with good results, and yet we largely continue with five-day weeks. The Guardian article linked above makes it sound like things might eventually be changing, at least in Europe: Iceland and now Belgium already have them; Scotland is trialling them; and the “future generations commissioner” of Wales is calling for them. If folks like Quiggin and Barnes have their way, maybe Australia and New Zealand will too.