A new way of working

Has the five-day week had its chips?

It was an “overwhelming success” in Iceland, so why not here? The Icelandic trials of a four-day working week took place between 2015 and 2019 and led to the majority of workers moving to shorter hours. This was, of course, before Covid struck globally, changing day-to-day life for us all. Researchers found that, during the trials, productivity remained the same or improved in most workplaces and that workers reported feeling less stressed and at risk of burnout.

They also said their health and work-life balance had improved and reported having more time to spend with their families, do hobbies and complete household chores. The successful trials meant unions could renegotiate working patterns, and now around 86% of Iceland’s workforce have either moved to shorter hours for the same pay or will gain the right to do so. The Icelandic experiment prompted other nations around the world, including Spain and New Zealand, to begin trials of their own. Now the UK has joined the working week revolution with more than 3,000 workers at 70 companies starting a six-month trial of a four-day week, with no loss of pay. The trial is based on the 100:80:100 model – 100% of pay for 80% of time, in exchange for a commitment to maintain 100% productivity. The scheme is the world’s biggest trial of the new working pattern and is organised by 4 Day Week Global in partnership with the think tank Autonomy, the 4 Day Week Campaign and researchers at Cambridge and Oxford universities and Boston College in the USA.

Companies taking part in the experiment include a fish-and-chip shop, software companies, tax specialists, a charity bank, building construction and recruitment services and digital marketing firms. Researchers will work with participating organisations to measure the impact on productivity and the wellbeing of workers, as well as the effect on the environment and on gender equality. Government-backed, four-day-week trials are also set to begin in Scotland later in the year. Lead researcher on the pilot is Juliet Schor, a professor of sociology at Boston College. She described the scheme as “historic”, adding: “We’ll be analysing how employees respond to having an extra day off, in terms of stress and burnout, job and life satisfaction, health, sleep, energy use, travel and many other aspects of life.” Last month a report commissioned by the 4 Day Week Campaign suggested that shorter hours could also cut the UK’s carbon footprint.

But not everyone is convinced the scheme can work for all. Julian Jessop, an independent economist and fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs, said that while he was in favour of the trial he was “sceptical” it would show good results across the entire economy. “You’d have to become 25% more productive per day,” he said. “Doctors are already struggling to provide enough GP appointments – how can they see 25% more patients in a day? And it’s difficult to see how a bar person can pull 25% more pints in a day too.”

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