A four-day week could be more productive than five

16 July 2019

The way we work is changing fast. The quicker we embrace it, the happier we’ll be

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Work time, as my father considers it, is a very political issue. Once upon a time it conjured images of the EU 48-hour working time directive, and reminders from France that they worked half as hard as us and achieved just as much.

But during the few years that I’ve lived in London and participated in its great unholy rat race, the more I’ve noticed a shift.

More of my friends work ‘flexibly,’ and more (Moneywise included) have moved into so-called flexible co-working spaces such as WeWork.

My housemate, for instance, works for a major insurance firm in the City of London. He works from home one day a week. It actually has nothing to do with his work/life balance, but more to do with the firm’s office. The company only has seats for about 80% of its employees. This, I am told, is common among major banks too.

It is largely a cost-saving measure on the firm’s part, but if my housemate is capable of doing his job from our sofa on his laptop, with Good Morning Britain in the background, then great!

Although truth be told I wonder how much work actually gets done. A cursory search on Amazon, and you’ll find a tech product called a ‘mouse jiggler’. This is a piece of USB tech designed to plug into your work laptop, so it stays continuously awake, giving the impression that you are doing something. Why else would such a product exist but to subvert your boss while working from home?

My housemate’s story is a small piece of a bigger puzzle that Britain has an issue with today – that is, the ‘productivity puzzle’.

Productivity has barely moved a jot since the financial crisis. It is measured as the amount of work produced per working hour. Simply put, we’re not getting better at our jobs.

It is well known countries such as Germany and France produce in four days what takes us slovenly Brits five.

Recently, Brexit has shouldered some of the blame. Employment figures keep pushing higher. This is supposedly because it is cheaper (and less risky during periods of uncertainty) for firms to hire more employees (who can then subsequently be discarded in a downturn) than it is to invest in new equipment, technology or training for existing employees.

This has a negative effect. Automated car washes have been around for a long time. But go to an out-of-town Tesco car park and you’ll find a gang of lads offering hand car washes. While they’ve got work, which is great, it is also an inefficient use of their time compared to a machine that just needs occasional maintenance.

Politicians don’t seem to have much of an idea of how to solve this either. But in fact, a small, left-leaning think tank called Autonomy came out with an eye-catching proposal recently – the four-day working week.

While it isn’t official Labour Party policy (yet), it is backed by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell. And one Moneywise columnist/deputy editor. And, according to jobsite Indeed, a staggering three-quarters of the public.

The report from Autonomy found that countries such as Norway, the Netherlands and Germany have the shortest working hours in Europe, and the highest levels of productivity.

The Indeed research found that 74% of workers believed they could do their jobs in four days instead of five. This rose to 79% among millennials.

So if the vast majority of us can do our jobs in four days instead of five (therefore theoretically leaving no loss of overall output), the question is: what do we all do with the extra day off?

This is the beauty of having an extra day – it gives people more freedom to do what they like with their lives.

I have friends who would love to set up side-hustle businesses alongside their full-time jobs. That might even help boost the economy.

I know people who would clamour for the extra day to look after their kids and save money on childcare. It would even help people save one-fifth of their commuting costs, and free up public transport. Even an extra day to pursue a hobby or sit on the sofa and do nothing. The choice is yours.

This idea is appreciably quite idealistic, and many will guffaw at the implications of more play time over work time. But to me it seems an idea with lots of small mercies attached to it.

An increase in flexible working culture is great up to a point, but there seems an element of “prisoner in your own home” about it. And I question how productive one can truly be.

After all, why else would such a thing as a ‘mouse jiggler’ exist? Let’s all aim for four productive days at work instead of a five-day botch.