A lack of productivity growth has been a major problem for the UK economy over the past decade (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart). Is it possible that the new decade may see a pick-up in the growth in output per hour worked?
One possible solution to low productivity growth is to reduce working hours and even to move to a four-day week, but not to reduce total pay. If people work fewer hours, they may well be more productive in the hours they do work. In fact, not only may output per hour increase, but so too may output per worker, despite fewer hours being worked. What is more, the quality of output may increase with people being less tired and more motivated.
Several companies have experimented with a four-day week, including Microsoft in Japan, which employees 2300 workers. It found that, despite a 20% reduction in hours worked, output per hour worked increased by 40%, with total output thereby increasing. Workers were generally happier and more motivated and asked for fewer days off.
And it is not just a question of output: fewer hours can result in lower costs. The effect on costs will depend on the nature of new work patterns, including whether everyone has the same extra day off.
But a four-day week is only one way of cutting working hours for full-time employees. Another is to reduce the length of the working day. The argument is that people may work more efficiently if the standard working day is cut from eight to, say, five hours. As the first Thrive Global article article (linked below) states:
Just because you’re at your desk for eight hours doesn’t mean you’re being productive. Even the best employees probably only accomplish two to three hours of actual work. The five-hour day is about managing human energy more efficiently by working in bursts over a shorter period.
If people have more leisure time, this could provide a boost to the leisure and other industries. According to a Henley Business School study:
An extra day off could have a knock-on effect for the wider society. We found 54% of employees said they would spend their day shopping, meaning a potential boost for the high street, 43% would go to the cinema or theatre and 39% would eat out at restaurants.
What is more, many people would be likely to use the extra time productively, undertaking training, volunteering or other socially useful activities. Also family life is likely to improve, with people spending less time at work and commuting and having more time for their partners, children, other relatives and friends. In addition, people’s physical and mental health is likely to improve as they achieve a better work-life balance.
So, should firms be encouraged to reduce hours for full-time workers with no loss of pay? Many firms may need no encouragement at all if they can see from the example of others that it is in their interests. But many firms may find it difficult, especially if their suppliers and/or customers are sticking with ‘normal’ working hours and want to do business during those hours. But, over time, as more firms move in this direction, so it will become increasingly in the interests of others to follow suit.
In the meantime, should the government introduce incentives (such as tax breaks) or regulations to limit the working week? Indeed, it was part of the Labour manifesto for the December 2019 election that the country should, over time, move to a four-day week. Although this was a long-term goal, it would probably have involved the use of some incentives to encourage employers to move in that direction or the gradual introduction of limits on the number of hours or days per week that people could work in a particular job. It is unlikely that the new Conservative government will introduce any specific measures, but would probably not want to discourage firms from reducing working hours, especially if it is accompanied by increased output per worker.
But despite the gains, there are some problems with reduced working hours. Many small businesses, such as shops, restaurants and firms offering technical support, may not have the flexibility to offer reduced hours, or may find it hard to increase productivity when there is a specific amount of work that needs doing, such as serving customers.
Another problem concerns businesses where the output of individuals is not easy to measure because they are part of a team. Reducing hours or the working week may not make such people work harder if they can ‘get way with it’. Not everyone is likely to be motivated by fewer hours to work harder.
Then there is the problem if reduced hours don’t work in boosting productivity. It may then be very difficult to reintroduce longer hours.
But, despite these problems, there are many firms where substantial gains in productivity could be made by restructuring work in a way that reduces hours worked. We may see more and more examples as the decade progresses.
- The pros and cons of a four day working week
ABC, Life Matters, Hilary Harper, Emma Dawson and Professor Peter McIlveen (25/11/19)
- Economics of a four-day working week: research shows it can save businesses mone
- Less hours for work, more time on Earth: Why a four-day working week is good for you
- Microsoft Japan Launched A Four-Day Workweek To Much Success: Is This The Key To Attracting Talent In The Tight U.S. Job Market?
- Will The Five-Hour Work Day Catch On In America?
- My Company Implemented a 5-Hour Workday — and the Results Have Been Astounding
- Why Does a Four-Day Work Week Achieve Better Results?
- Four-Day Working Week Improves Staff’s Mental Health By 87%, Company Finds
- Hull business launches four-day working week as well as your birthday off and ‘Beer Fridays’
- A four-day work week? Sounds nice, but here’s the real deal
- The four-day debate: Fantasy or feasible?
- Finland’s ministry of transport floats tech-enabled four-day week
- Should You Consider a 4 Day Work Week?
The Conversation, Miriam Marra (11/11/19)
Independent, Steve Taylor (16/12/19)
Forbes, Jack Kelly (5/11/19)
Forbes, Jack Kelly (28/10/19)
Thrive Global, Stephan Aarstol (3/10/19)
Thrive Global, Stephanie Lin (16/12/19)
Unilad, Niamh Shackleton (10/12/19)
Hull Live, Phil Winter (5/12/19)
Sydney Morning Herald, Tony Featherstone (21/11/19)
The Hindu, Business Live, Kamal Karanth (20/11/19)
Computer Weekly, Gerard O’Dwyer (20/11/19)
Small Business Trends, Rob Starr (5/12/19)
- Four Better or Four Worse
- Four-day Week Pays off for Business
A White Paper from Henley Business School, James Walker and Rita Fontinha (3/7/19)
Henley Business School Press Release (3/7/19)
- Distinguish between different ways of measuring labour productivity.
- Give some examples (from the linked references) of employers which have tried introducing a four-day week or reduced hours for full-time workers. What has been the outcome in each case?
- In what ways may reducing working hours reduce a firm’s total costs?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of the government imposing (at some point in the future) a maximum working week or a four-day week?
- What types of firm might struggle in introducing a four-day week or a substantially reduced number of hours for full-time employees?
- What external benefits and costs might arise from a shorter working week?