Lockdown has given us a taste of flexible hours – so now let's go for a four-day working week

Joe Ryle

New polling on a four-day working week shows that the British public are re-imagining their relationship to work. As a result of Covid-19, millions of people have already had a taste of flexible hours and returning back to a world characterised by stress and overwork seems an unattractive proposition.

It certainly isn't the case for everyone but over the last few months, many have happily adjusted to their new lifestyle with more free time for doing the things they love; socialising, spending time with family and exercise.

A society in which we work to live, rather than live to work, suddenly looks closer than ever before. But is a four-day week for everyone realistic?

The 4 Day Week Campaign, working alongside the trade unions, are advocating for shorter working-times, including a four-day week, with no reduction in pay except for the highest earners who can clearly afford to take the option. With many businesses suffering from the impact of Covid-19, it's reasonable to wonder how this would be feasible.

Firstly, studies show that when workers are on reduced hours they are more motivated and therefore more productive – it’s not rocket science. Workers in the UK put in longer hours than other European countries and at the same time we lag behind on productivity - a four-day week would correct this.

Secondly, the implementation of a four-day week must be both bottom-up and top-down. There is an opportunity right now for the government to explore using the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme to subsidise a reduced working week and therefore tackle the unemployment crisis. In this way, a shorter working week would have the additional benefit of redistributing work to those who are going to need new jobs.

It's important to say that there is no one-size-fits-all model for reducing working time. Working time reduction must be tailored to the individual job and sector in which it is applied. It must be done collectively, not individually. For this reason, trade unions should be at the heart of this transition, negotiating and collectively winning reductions to working hours workplace by workplace and in some instances, sector by sector.

Across the world, from Canada to New Zealand to Scotland and Wales, a four-day week is no longer a pipe dream for radicals and is seriously being considered as one way of creating a better future post Covid-19.

There have been some encouraging signs that employers are starting to get on with it themselves. Target Publishing, an independent publisher based in Essex, has just moved all their staff over to a four-day week, with no reduction in pay.

David Cann, managing director of Target Publishing, explained the reasoning behind it: “Covid-19 has changed how every business operates. We’re determined to make the change a positive. Lockdown highlighted the importance of time with family. That's why we've started a new four-day working week – without any reduction in pay – to help support our employees’ mental health, wellbeing and give them a healthier work-life balance.”

More than half (57 per cent) of Conservative voters want the UK government to explore introducing a four-day week and if you dig down even further into the data – there is significant support across all age brackets, income levels and regions of the country.

It’s about time the environmental movement started to take the proposal more seriously too because a four-day week would mean less commuting and less carbon emissions. With more free time available, it also opens up the potential to engage in more environmentally sustainable behaviours.

Many things thought outlandish or impossible before this crisis are now part of a common sense response.

Boris Johnson’s government may well decide to dismiss the idea but they would be foolish too. With everything up in the air, people questioning their relationship with work and more automation on the way, the time has come for a four-day week.

Joe Ryle is a campaigner with the 4 Day Week Campaign, a former advisor to John McDonnell MP and a former Labour Party press officer

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