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Don’t switch to four-day working weeks – it’s a trap!

Recently Perpetual Guardian trialed a four-day working week where their employees were able to take one day per week off (working 32 instead of 40 hours) whilst still being paid the same amount. The trial, according to the myriad media articles, was a resounding success, and they’re looking to implement the scheme company-wide in the coming months.

Stuff published an article with a round-up of all the commentary on the idea from around NZ. It seems like many are “cautiously supportive” of the four-day work week, and think it will help to improve our productivity ratings, which have been lagging behind in OECD data for decades.

It’s a simple idea in terms of increasing productivity: if people have less time to do the same things, they’re going to work a bit faster to get them done. In turn, work-life balance, employee empowerment, and other wellbeing metrics have improved as staff take an extra day off work.

I’m a little skeptical of these results, though. People are generally working at high productivity levels for a very, very small part of their day. Efficiency in the workplace in terms of time taken to do certain tasks, is, from experience in quite a few different workplaces, quite low.

How much of these wellbeing gains are actually from a happiness-effect, where staff perceive themselves to be better off because they’re at the job they only sort-of enjoy for 80% of the time they would normally be there? After a couple of years working four days a week, will productivity levels return to what they were before, and a campaign for three days a week will begin?

What we need to be looking at is not necessarily how long we’re working in terms of days at work, but rather how we’re working.

Education research into study techniques and focus will consistently tell you that taking regular breaks is necessary, and that you’ll be more productive if you spend a limited amount of time on studying, rather than setting aside a whole day to study.

Back in Belgium (I study Philosophy there), I would spend quite a large part of the day meeting people, running between the park and the lecture hall and my flat, and at theatre or uni-related meetings. When you add to that attending all my lectures (20 hours a week), there doesn’t seem to be much time to read the 200-odd pages of almost incomprehensible philosophy each week, as well as write papers and do assignments.

The thing is though, I can read and write very good papers in this kind of environment much faster than I can if I sit at a desk from 9-5. Breaking up the day with loads of different activities, yet spending 7 days a week ‘working’ works better than the 9-5 factory output structure that most office jobs have.

I think what we’ll find if we start introducing the four-day working week is that people are a little happier in the short term and wellbeing indicators will all be up. Productivity, like Perpetual Guardian reports, will go up by about 20%. Job stress will decrease (a little strange given workers now have less time to do the same amount of work), and we’ll think it’s a success.

Because people are still spending their time working like factory employees, we won’t experience long term gains in productivity, however. We’ll just gradually slip back into our old rhythm. For that to happen, we need to make sure that the time we spend at work is actually productive, and that the way we are performing different tasks is efficient.

So, my response to the four-day working week: scrap it. Instead, have at least an extra 1 hour and 36 minutes of break each day, and make sure that you’ve organised things to do during that time. If you’re spending your extra day off going to the gym and doing gardening, then do that during the work day instead. Happiness and productivity will go through the roof.

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Jack has joined the Initiative team as an intern for six weeks and will be researching and working on our upcoming localism report. Jack is two years in a three-year degree in Philosophy at KU Leuven University in Belgium and is back home in Wellington while on his (European) summer break. 

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