The four-day week and the myth of productivity

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Hybrid working is here, Billy MacInnes looks at the next revolution in working conditions

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24 June 2021 | 0

The Covid-19 pandemic and the various lockdowns that came with it helped highlight just how valuable a role technology plays in today’s world. The ability for office-bound businesses and organisations to pivot and shift all of their employees to working remotely from home was made possible by technology. Without it, they would have been closed for the duration.

Similarly, without the technological advances that allowed for video conferencing, social media interaction and streaming, life would have been much more intolerable for everyone.

So there’s no dispute that IT has had a profound effect on the way we work, live and play. But could it have done even more?

 

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The question arises in the wake of the recent launch of a pilot programme for employers by Four Day Week Ireland to trial the effectiveness of a four-day working week. Businesses that take part in the pilot programme will introduce the shorter working week for employees over a six-month period starting in January 2022.

According to Four Day Week Ireland the pilot “includes business supports to help organisations explore flexible working smoothly and successfully”. There will be a training programme developed by companies that have already implemented a four-day week, coaching, mentoring and advice from four-day week business leaders, along with networking and collaboration with other participant companies in Ireland and internationally.

In support of the campaign, chairperson Joe O’Connor cites international research stating “a shorter working week doesn’t mean a loss in productivity – in many cases, it is the opposite”.

In addition to more free time for workers and greater productivity, the campaign claims a shorter working week gives greater flexibility for women making it easier for them to participate in the workforce. “On a societal level, a four-day week also supports us to take better care of our health, and can have a positive impact on the environment by reducing carbon created by commuting, for example. The four-day week is better for everyone, it’s time we made the change.”

One Irish company that has already implemented a four day week is Letterkenny-based software company 3D Issue. In a blog post published on the company website in February, CEO Phil McNulty explains the motivation for adopting the shorter working week and outlines some of the issues that need to be addressed by companies interested in implementing it.

He concludes: “I have no regrets. Staff come into work refreshed, with their batteries fully recharged, after enjoying a bonus day to themselves. The entire team is happier. And isn’t that what life is all about?”

Slow change in a fast-moving field

So here’s my gripe with technology. Why haven’t we reached the point where technology advances have made it possible for the vast majority of people in employment to work a four-day week?

Isn’t it time for a change? We’ve had the five-day working week for a long time now. Varying sources attribute the introduction of a weekend to an agreement between factory owners and workers in northern England in the early 19th century that gave them Saturday afternoon off from 2pm in exchange for coming to work sober on Monday morning.

The five-day working week was first introduced in the US in a cotton mill in New Jersey in 1908 but gained prominence when Henry Ford implemented it for his factory workers in 1926.

There is no disputing that IT has had a radical effect on much of our working lives. PCs, laptops, tablets, smartphones, the Web, cloud, broadband, wireless, connectivity, have all dramatically altered how people work every day – and continue to do so.

But what they still haven’t done is change the days we work. It’s getting harder and harder to understand why.

In his blog, McNulty notes: “Our four-day week output matches that of our five-day week. So productivity at an individual and team level, for the amount of time worked, has increased.”

This is where I have always believed IT would play a very important role, in helping companies boost their output so they could achieve in four days what previously took five.

If 3D Issue has already achieved that objective, I’m assuming it’s possible for many other businesses too. So what’s stopping them? As for the IT industry, amid all the plaudits for its role in making remote working a reality, why has there been so little mention of what it could do to reduce the working week?


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