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These companies ran an experiment: Pay workers their full salary to work fewer days

Workers rejoice
Pixabay

Companies in the United Kingdom are about to complete the biggest trial of a four-day work week ever undertaken, anywhere in the world. The program's thesis was a provocative one: that for six months, these companies would reduce their workers' hours by 20%, to 32 hours a week, but continue to pay them 100% of their pay.

Charlotte Lockhart, the founder of Four Day Week, the organization behind the pilot program, says company leaders usually have a visceral reaction when they hear the idea of cutting hours without cutting pay. Something like, "That'll never work in my business. That'll never work in my industry. That'll never work in my country. That'll never work in the world."

Fortunately, she found 73 companies to give it a shot. They include financial firms, recruiters, consultants, health care companies and even a fish and chip shop (this is Britain, after all). And while the data on the study hasn't been released yet, the anecdotal feedback from these firms appears to be positive. Fully 86% said they will likely continue the four-day workweek policy. The same pay for less time at work? Sign us up!

Reframing the workplace

From the moment the five-day week was adopted as the industry standard, about a century ago, we've been talking about spending less time at work. John Maynard Keynes declared in the early 1930s that technological advancement would bring the work week down to 15 hours within a century. A U.S. Senate subcommittee doubled down on this in 1965, predicting we'd only be working 14 hours by the year 2000.

But, over the last few years, the idea of shortening the work week has been given new impetus by the pandemic, which threw workplaces into disarray. That created a unique opening for reformers like Charlotte Lockhart. "The opportunity we have here is to completely reframe the workplace," she says.

To get companies on board, she is using the holy grail of increased productivity as a lure. That's a particularly tantalizing enticement for companies in the UK, where productivity has languished for more than a decade, and where, she says, workers are on average productive for just three hours a day.

"There is clear evidence around the world that if you reduce work time, you increase productivity," she says, pointing to findings from studies done in Iceland, New Zealand, the UK, Belgium and Japan.

[Editor's note: This is an excerpt of Planet Money's newsletter. You can sign up here.]

The data produced by these studies tends to be a little squishy: There are not a lot of hard numbers in them that allow readers to gauge productivity gains or losses in material terms. But managers and workers have generally reported being equally or more productive in a shortened week. They reported improved health and general wellbeing, as well as reduced stress and burnout. One big finding was that people who work fewer hours in the week tend to get more sleep, which almost everyone in the scientific community agrees is key to productivity.

Laura Giurge, a professor of behavioral science who studies wellbeing at the University of Oxford and the London School of Economics, says happier, better rested workers are likely to be more productive, and less likely to burn out or churn out. And a shortened week can drive productivity in other ways.

"It forces people to prioritize better and really focus on completing their core work," she says. "It is almost like a removal of bullshit tasks or tasks that seem important but aren't."

She notes that companies often waste resources by keeping employees idle between meetings and tasks. "These idle hours not only fragment employees' attention — and therefore productivity — but can also cost companies up to $100 billion a year in lost wages," she says.

A shorter week can also go a long way to dealing with one of the biggest impairments to corporate productivity: employees taking time off to go to the doctor or recover from an illness. Giurge quotes research done in the U.S. estimating that 5 to 8% of annual health care costs are associated with and may be attributable to workplace stressors such as long hours.

And in Britain?

"We know that one in four of our workforce in the UK are not working productively because they have a workplace or mental health issue," Charlotte Lockhart says. "The UK loses nearly 8 million worker days from workplace stress and overwork a year. So that's about $43 billion lost from the economy because I've taken a sick day."

Less is more

Esme Terry of the Digital Futures at Work Research Center in the UK is in full agreement that, for most people, long work days and weeks impair productivity. But she's not entirely convinced that a four-day work week is the way to go. For one thing, there's some disagreement over what a four-day week actually means.

"There are multiple different models that are termed a four-day week," she points out. "For example, some organizations have condensed hours, so the number of working hours isn't actually reduced. They're condensed into fewer days with extended hours during those days." That's a model that could increase stress and burnout, rather than reduce it.

There's also some question about how a four-day work week could fit the overall workforce because of the difference in the way people work in different types of jobs, Terry says. She points to the difference between knowledge work and physical labor as an example.

"The work week for one of those employees is very different to the other employee in terms of their productivity," she says. "Knowledge work at, say, an advertising agency where your employer has you around five days a week, nine to five, because they're going to have meetings and they're paying you to be in that space so that they can use you, doesn't necessarily mean that you're being productive while you're in that space. Whereas if you're a delivery driver for Amazon, every moment that you're working, you are being productive."

She also notes that, paradoxically, while a four-day work week does free up time for workers, it's also a constraint, one that might not work for a lot of people.

"Workers have different preferences; different ways of working," she says. "Some people like to have prescribed hours; very set hours. They know exactly what they're doing when they're doing it, and they find that productive. Other people like to be able to work when they feel they're most productive. and that might not be in core working hours."

One size doesn't fit all

Her caution was reflected in a small and very random poll conducted by NPR on the streets of London recently. All the British workers we spoke to said they liked the idea of more time off, but they all expressed doubts that the four-day week model would fit easily with their sectors. They also raised the question of whether a week with fewer working hours would benefit the kind of workers who make up an increasingly large part of the British workforce.

"You're talking about differences between the knowledge economy and the platform and gig economies," Terry says. "Work is precarious, and generally people lack security and are self-employed in most instances. They're tied to a company but technically work for themselves." Given that the corporate trend is generally in the direction of companies hiring workers on more exploitative terms, rather than less, fewer hours for the same pay seems like a tough sell.

What Terry says the workplace really needs — along with the workers who work in it — is to become more flexible. That could mean a four-day week for some workers, while others might want to stick to five days, or even extend to six or seven, but working in shorter bursts over those days. The point, she says, is that there is no one formula for increased productivity (not to mention wellbeing). To make employees truly productive, employers need to adopt a variety of workplace models.

"If employers can be less prescriptive about working hours and potentially place more trust in their employees to manage their own working time, then that's likely to have benefits," she says.

Managers trusting their workers? That wouldn't just be a reframing; more like a reimagining. But as Nicolas Bloom of Stanford University told our own Greg Rosalsky recently, we may be realizing that dream right now, thanks to the pandemic and a widespread shift to remote work that companies have been forced to embrace.

"Tons of firms I've spoken to have discovered you have to use output management to manage remote workers, which means beefing up HR systems, which means more training, more 360 reviews, performance reviews," Bloom says. "If you're an employee, that's good news for you because it means your boss, rather than saying you gotta be chained to your desk 50 hours a week at these strict times, they just say, 'Get your report done, make your sales figures, achieve your targets, and kind of manage yourself.'"

And once you're managing yourself, of course, it's you who gets to decide whether you work four hours a day for five days a week, or eight hours for three days. Or even — imagine! — no days at all.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Paddy Hirsch