The world’s biggest 4-day week trial kicks off and SA is watching – campaign director Joe Ryle

Overnight, the Covid-19 pandemic has changed the way people work, with many people keen to continue working from home. It has also prompted a new look at the five-day work week and whether we can be as productive in a four-day week. In the world’s biggest trial, 70 UK companies have started experimenting with a 32-hour week and are being monitored by the universities of Cambridge, Oxford, and Boston College in the US. Campaign director of the 4 Day Week pilot, Joe Ryle, told that working for five days, or 40 hours a week, is a very outdated model hailing from the 1930s that causes stress and burnout. He hopes the campaign will have a domino effect and travel across the world to countries like South Africa. – Linda van Tilburg

Five-day week a 1930s model

The UK just launched the biggest pilot of a 4-day week in the world so far. The campaign proposes a four-day, 32 hour working week with no reduction in pay for workers.  The 9-to-5, five-day working week grind has been around for a long time, and is viewed as a very outdated model. It’s not deemed fit for the modern workplace and in the UK is causing immense stress, burnout and overwork and the thinking is it’s time for change. Wherever you’ve seen the four-day week adopted across the world so far, it seems to result in better productivity. When workers are better rested they perform better. Also, crucially, the wellbeing of workers is boosted, as having extra leisure time can only be a good thing. So, we wanted to see this trial on a bigger scale, and we’ve got 3,000 workers and 70 companies taking part over six months.

Mix of UK companies are in the pilot

There are no household names, but there are fairly sizeable companies, up to a thousand employees taking part, and it’s a real mixture. I think the exciting thing is a real mix of sectors from across the economy, in retail, hospitality, telecommunications, marketing, HR; all sorts of companies taking part. And hopefully that will show that the four-day week is a policy that is possible across the economy over the longer term and of course, you can implement that overnight. But, you know, it’s ultimately about a better work-life balance for everyone. And so, what we want to see is applied across the economy for all workers.

The benefits of a 4-day week

I think as long as productivity is being maintained,  employers are fairly supportive.  As long as their output or whatever their effective output is in an organisation, as long as that’s still being met, I think, they’re happy to make it work because it’s in their interests for workers to be happier, to have better morale, to be more committed to their jobs in the first place. And there’s also other benefits in terms of reduced sick days, the ability to retain staff. A four-day week is very popular in the UK. It’s a great thing you can offer to staff to– keep them in their jobs and also to attract new talent. Again, it’s a desirable way of working. If you want to attract new talent,  a four-day week is one of the best things you can offer.

Jobs offering a 4-day week are on the rise

In a study out last week, there are 90% more four-day-week jobs on offer than there were a year ago. It’s clearly a trend which accelerated after the COVID pandemic. And I think the COVID pandemic opened people’s eyes to the fact that the world of work can change very quickly when necessary. We saw remote working, different ways of working coming in very quickly and it’s given workers a taste of more freedom in the workplace. They want more of that. They want a better work-life balance. They don’t want their lives to be dominated by work so much.

With greater automation, we’ll have to learn to share work

To implement a 4-day-week across the economy, you need government support, government working alongside businesses, working alongside trade unions to make sure we can transition together. And we think that needs to happen anyway because if you think about greater automation, new technology, there’s going to be a diminishing amount of work anyway. So, we need to get back to sharing existing work equally across the economy and shorter working hours are the natural way to do this. But we’re fairly confident the four-day-week is going to be the future of work. So, what we’re saying is, let’s embrace this now. It is in all of our interests. We want to work to live, not live to work.

The world is watching to see if it works

There has been a monumental, phenomenal response to the pilot. It’s the world’s biggest so far. We’ve had international media coverage in the New York Times in many, many other countries. And I think it does show that it’s an idea whose time has come. It’s been 100 years since we moved from a six-day week to a five-day week. Since the 1980s in the UK, working hours have barely reduced at all despite all the productivity gains. We are so more productive than we were in the 1980s but none of that productivity has been passed on to workers in terms of more leisure time, more free time to enjoy our lives. And so, it’s been a long time coming, with many, many countries, now, governments, looking at trialling this, adopting this. We’ve had quite significant developments in countries like Iceland. So yeah,  we  hope this is a trend that takes place across the world and starts a  domino effect.

Is it suitable for South Africa? 

I don’t see why not. South Africa has similar full-time hours as the UK in roundabout a 40-hour week. And it’s interesting, isn’t it, because the 9-to- 5, five day work week model spread across the world in the 1930s but it’s very outdated; it was designed for an industrial agriculture, the economy of the time. And the world of work has been transformed since then but yet we’re wedded to this really old model of working. So, we do think the four-day week may come in a similar sort of way. You may just see that it’s a gradual transition across the world to what a four-day week looks like, which we think is a lot more sensible.

So, lunch hours remain the same. This is in most cases, a reduction of about eight hours a week, down from the average, which is about 42. Lunch hours are still the same. So that’s not affected in any way. There is a case that work still needs to be in the office, to be in the workplace sometimes, to get that cohesion, but it’s about working less and working smarter.

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