The virtues of a four-day workweek – The Hindu BusinessLine

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Several companies, including some in India, have got satisfactory results

In a 1930 article titled ‘ Economic possibilities for our grandchildren’, legendary English economist John Maynard Keynes perceived that people would be working just 15 hours a week in 2030. “[T]hree hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!” Earlier in 1926, Henry Ford has adopted a five-day workweek in place of the typical six days, a decision originally been taken in 1922. Experiments showed productivity wouldn’t suffer as a result. “Every man needs more than one day a week for rest and recreation,” said Edsel Ford, Henry’s son and the president of the company. Thus, a great deal of change occurred from the time of the Industrial Revolution, when the employees worked around 10-16 hours a day. The social experiment, however, is still continuing.

“The four-day workweek is inevitable,” Richard Nixon envisaged in 1979. This idea is now gaining momentum in different corners of the globe. In the 2020 book The 4 Day Week, coauthored with Stephanie Jones, entrepreneur and business innovator Andrew Barnes makes the case for the four-day workweek as the answer to many of the ills of the 21st-century global economy.

It’s certainly a mix of trenchant analysis, personal observation, and actionable advice — based on the real-life experiment conducted in his own business, the New Zealand trust company Perpetual Guardian, initiated in February 2018 — that offered employees an extra day off work, on full pay, each week, with no additional working hours on their four working days. It was observed that the employees were happier and healthier, more engaged in their personal lives, and more focussed and productive in the office.

Well, will Thursday become the new Friday elsewhere also? Trials run by Reykjavík City Council and the national government in Iceland between 2015 and 2019 included more than 2,500 workers, amounting to about 1 per cent of Iceland’s working population, covering a range of workplaces, were an ‘overwhelming success’ and led to 86 per cent of Iceland’s workforce either moving to shorter hours for the same pay or gaining the right to. During the last five years, several companies, including some in India also, got satisfactory results in their internal ‘experiments’ for a four-day workweek with their employees and businesses. Some even termed it a step to adapt to the ‘Future of Work’!

The age-old Parkinson’s Law, as outlined by Cyril Northcote Parkinson in a humorous essay in The Economist in 1955, of course, says that work expands to fill the time allotted for its completion. Is working less time the solution then? Some, of course, believe so. In his 2016 article titled ‘ The solution to (nearly) everything: working less’, published in The Guardian, Dutch author and journalist Rutger Bregman opined that reducing working hours will bring about positive change in workers’ safety, environmental problems, stress, inequality, happiness, and unemployment.

Take the example of Portugal. In 1996, the government decided to reduce the weekly working time from 44 to 40 hours gradually over the course of two years. It was observed that it had beneficial effects, especially for women and employees with a heavy burden of family obligations.

However, amid the shake-up of the unprecedented pandemic and huge surge in a work-from-home culture where the boundary between work and the home is blurred, businesses are forced to evolve, and the concept of a four-day workweek is also gaining momentum in different parts of the world.

Now, India is likely to implement four new labour codes which can change working hours, the number of working days, and their take-home salary. It proposes a four-day workweek, although it’s unclear what this means in terms of working hours, since, reportedly, the Labour Ministry has held that the 48-hour weekly work requirement will stay as-is.

On Youtube, there’s a lecture by Andrew Barnes regarding the inherent chemistry of the success story of their experiment on a four-day workweek without additional work hours on the workdays. Barnes says: “[People] were recognising that a day off was a gift. …And it wasn’t something that you could just take for granted.”

Just wondering whether the dynamics would remain the same when the additional day off will be ‘granted’ by law. Would all employees use their three-days off “for rest and recreation”? Can’t say at the moment. However, there’s little doubt that Keynes misjudged the progress graph of the labour laws on this planet — it’s still miles to go to achieve his predicted 15 hours a week mark. Everywhere.

The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, KolkataPublished on January 13, 2022

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