Post-pandemic return to work is a perfect opportunity to move to a four-day week

Benefits would include greater freedom from work and the opportunity to share work more evenly across the population.
Image: Shutterstock/Alex Segre

The gradual easing of lockdowns and social restrictions opens the possibility of a welcome return to pre-pandemic habits. This might mean trips to the cinema, eating in restaurants, or attending a large wedding. For millions of people, it will also mean reverting to a pattern of work that includes regular stints in the office.

Many of us will have to confront the reality of going back to the office five days a week. It is a development celebrated by some who claim it will restore beneficial and sorely missed social interactions. They argue that it also brings opportunities to share information and ideas – and of course, the potential for more productivity and profit.

But this image of the future betrays a lack of imagination about how work could now be reorganised. It also fails to see the benefits that would come from actually cutting back on work hours – including the chance to move to a four-day working week.

There is growing support for the idea of a four-day working week. Benefits would include greater freedom from work and the opportunity to share work more evenly across the population. We could help spread the benefits of working, without the costs of overwork and unemployment. Returning to a five-day week would prevent these positive outcomes.

Covid has already shaken up modern work patterns in a way that would have seemed unimaginable a couple of years ago. But not in a way that has necessarily benefited employees who were used to working in an office.

Instead, the enforced move to working from home has commonly led to an increase in working hours (with no increase in pay). This partly explains why some firms are, in fact, eager to retain homeworking. Office costs can be passed on to employees in their homes, and constant connectivity can be used to create a culture that allows no one to switch off from work.

A lack of trust towards employees has also led to new forms of remote monitoring. So whatever gains employees have received from working from home – cost savings from not commuting and some flexibility over how work is done – have been more than outweighed by more intensive and prolonged hours of work. Far from being a way to balance work and life, homeworking has embedded problems of excessive working.

But that doesn’t mean employees should be rushing back to the office to find a better work-life balance. On the contrary, the risk remains that long work hours will be maintained, to the disadvantage of employees.

Noticeably, the talk of the benefits of the move back to office working has been focused on the interests of firms.

There are suggestions of the benefits of higher productivity from shared working, but this ignores the fact that issues around control can often motivate decisions to locate workers in the same space. Direct monitoring in the office is more effective than remote monitoring, giving firms a direct interest in returning to office working for the standard five-day working week.

Now could be the time to change.

What about the views of employees? The return to office working means new costs – in time and money – from commuting. It also means the re-imposition of a time pattern that was not working for most employees before the pandemic hit.

For many, the return to a five-day office week will bring dread and the sense of loss about a world that limits opportunity and freedom. Reconnecting with colleagues will be scant consolation for the Monday to Friday grind.

Work-life imbalance

One positive of the lockdown has been the emergence of a demand for a “right to disconnect”. Some unions have demanded that time away from work be protected. New laws are being recommended that explicitly give permission to employees not to read or respond to electronic messages outside of their normal hours of work.

A new right to disconnect has been implemented in some countries and could certainly help to protect non-working time. Recent polling also suggests that most UK employees now support a right to disconnect.

But deeper reform is required. If the economy is to “build back better” in a real sense, it will need to accommodate a shorter working week. A move to shorter working hours could help to support economic recovery by preventing higher unemployment. The benefits of short-time working could be realised as the economy is unlocked. A shorter working week would also help to extend our freedom and if combined with work-sharing would enable more of us to gain the benefits of work.

The case for a four-day work week is now well established. There are clear benefits to health, ecology and the economy. Firms may prefer traditional work practices, but progress in society will require that a new normal is established.

There is no other way for us to live and work better than to reduce the working week by a day. We should not be celebrating a return to a five-day week in the office – instead, we should be aiming for a four-day work week for all.The Conversation

David Spencer, Professor of Economics and Political Economy, University of Leeds

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.


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If we stagger the off-day of the week across regions we could make that the region’s weekly loadshed day. Much better than this random times of day and week. One day, no workers, no electricity, no production – what could possibly go wrong

Fewer work hours a solution to unemployment? I wonder what my gardener will say if he now only works from 8-12 and I pay him R120 vs the current R240. Then we can give employment to another person from 1200-1600 for the other R120. Somewhere in this I will change from having 1 happy employee to having 2 unhappy employees begging for more pay.

I’ve always preferred a routine where I was able to switch-off (aka doing something else besides earning a living) when the task was completed, not when the time had run out. I find clock-watching, micro-management and set-working hours demotivating to say the least.

I discovered this when I was a student: The goal was to qualify and I alone was responsible in ensuring that I graduated. What I put in is what I got out, and if I wanted a first-class pass, then I would have to make the necessary sacrifices. My future was in my own hands, and I accepted responsibility for my own life.

If we want to build back better then work should be incentivised in a mutually beneficial way that produces the desired results with nobody having to police the process. Finding one’s vocation should be key so that one enjoys what one does. People who love what they do spend more time where they want to be – in their flow state. Being in the zone eliminates the need for supervision, unions and clock-watchers.

Trouble is not everyone – in fact I’d say most people – has a ‘vocation’ or something they love doing that happens to be productive for self and / or society. Hence work has to be organised in a production line manner. It’s a given in modern society in my opinion.

4 day work week from home ia best

I can feel the boomers collectively having heart failure just hearing about this. Are you really alive if you not stuck at a desk all day everryday with little to no reward to show for it?

Who is the redhead?? 🙂

Will this work if one spouse is on 5 days and the other on 4 days? Will the kids have to remain on a 5 day school week? Will employees accept a reduced salary? Is this a concept for developed economies where other basics already taken care of? So many questions…???

Brilliant idea but what about the other factors affecting this, ie: EE rate per hour will increase slightly or not but the cost of leaving increases drastically, Kids who attend schools, the low income earners, etc.

It is a nice to have luxury but isn’t realistic, if this could be implemented you might as well have to reduce our insurances also. I honestly welcome the 4 day week ONLY if it could be applied across all affected areas

Generally impractical, and reserved for few.

Would also bring about even more poverty and unemployment in certain sectors, office cleaners, taxi drivers, bus drivers, informal traders on certain routes, etc, etc!

Methinks not for SA, and not good for marriages anywhere either!

Fantastic for Netflix though!

End of comments.



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