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Defying the Long-Standing Neoliberal Dominion: The 4-Day Working Week

Staff writer Salvatrice D’Anna Campo considers the impact of the four-day working week trials that have taken place in UK companies.

In the wake of the largest four-day working week trial in the UK, the post-neoliberal era may be upon us. The idea of a reduced work schedule can be traced back to the 1920s and 30s. Historian Benjamin Hunnicutt explains how a 30-hour work week was promoted as a form to divide the work during the Great Depression. Industrialists such as Henry Ford also supported 6-hour work days believing it would increase productivity. However, Hunnicutt contends that as hours were reduced so were wages, thus employees ceded their demands for shorter work time.

During the 1980s, the Thatcher-Reagan reign began and society was subsumed in the neoliberal ideology. Tethered to an ‘its do or die’ economic system, the prospect of a reduction in work hours has felt like a faint dream. However, the possibility of abandoning a doctrine in which work takes precedence over all other aspects of one’s life has emerged with the four-day work week trial.

It comprised 61 companies, accounting for over 2,900 employees, whose salaries had to be maintained at the previous amount. The companies were given the flexibility to implement the model in various ways. There was the classic Friday-off model, the staggered model, the decentralized model and the annualized model. Certain conditions were simultaneously introduced, such as, if one did not complete the agreed-upon amount of work they would not receive a day off. The trial prioritized analysing if employees themselves experienced a purposeful reduction in work time. Autonomy Research Ltd, one of the main think-tanks of the
trial, contended that “each company designed a policy tailored to its particular industry, organizational challenges, departmental structures and work culture.”

The results have been an overall success, in which 56 companies will continue with the trial, while 18 of them will implement the changes permanently. The data reveals that 70% of employees felt a decrease in a burnout state while their mental and physical health improved. Not only was employees’ well-being enhanced, but revenues remained at a stable rate or increased by on average 1.4%.

Particularly interesting for our modern workforce and emphasis on the gig economy, the trial showed a decrease in employee turnover rate by 57%. “15% of employees said that no amount of money would induce them to accept a five-day schedule over the four-day week to which they were now accustomed.”

The experiment emphasized people’s morale and revealed significant possibilities of where the workforce can move towards. The 4-day work week trial has expanded beyond the UK and has been adopted in various countries, such as Unilever in Australia and New Zealand and Microsoft in Japan. There is a wide incentive to demonstrate how a 4-day work model can be just as productive as the current system while improving employees’ work-life balance. Such strives for innovation are very encouraging considering that present productivity and skilled labour are in
decline and there is an overall disenchantment with work.

A noticeable aspect of the trial was also its extensive data collection. It was not only quantitative by analysing administrative business-focused data such as key metrics of income and finance, but there was an emphasis on the perspective of those in the ‘shop floor’ section. The trial conducted qualitative interviews with employees and was not solely limited to individuals in management positions. Such an approach is hopeful and indicative that when aligning the interests of an industry with that of its employees there can be fruitful results.

Nonetheless, there are points of contention when considering the potential consequences of the trial that should be reflected. Autonomy disclosed that one of the central factors analysed was productivity levels. Although the results show the possibility of a 4-day work week, I wonder if the reduced work hours would consist of a trade-off with increased surveillance in the workspace. A rise in workplace monitoring has been evidenced by an increase in remote work. Since the start of the pandemic large firms have approximately doubled employee surveillance. With a transition to a 4-day work week, why wouldn’t companies apply the same strategies to have more control and supervision over productivity?

According to Karen Levy, associate professor in the Department of Information Science at Cornell University, companies are motivated to implement monitoring strategies since they believe that it can lead to more efficiency and productivity. Yet, data shows that the increase in technological surveillance can at certain times result in more harm than good. Overall, workers endure more stress, causing them to resign or intentionally underperform.

During the World Economic Forum annual meeting in 2023, professor of the effects of new technology, Nita Farahany, expressed how highly invasive biotechnology and AI are being introduced more frequently in the workspace. In particular, there are wireless headphones that can detect what a person is paying attention to and when their mind begins to wander. The technology can distinguish between types of attention; central tasks, peripheral tasks or unrelated tasks. The device has the potential to be of great service to the employees to measure their productivity. However, it should be up to the employees if they want to adopt the technology,
instead of it being utilized by management to measure individuals’ brain metrics as a factor in evaluating their employment.

Alongside the possible trade-off between a 4-day work week and productivity surveillance technology, there are some demographic critiques regarding the trial. 68% of the participants had undergraduate degrees or higher and the industries involved were of high skill and part of the private sector. Meanwhile, 66% of the companies that participated in the pilot had 25 employees or fewer. With these factors in mind, part of the success of the trial can be explained as at least
partially resulting from a very specific demographic with a distinct skill set and belonging to a particular market. As a result, the implementation of a 4-day work week may be limited to the privileged section of the population, those working in high-skill industries with higher education and small businesses that can centre on individuality and strive for an effective work-life balance.

Despite the shortcomings of the trial in demographics, and by remaining alert on workplace surveillance, the results should provide renewed hope that we are headed towards a substantial and innovative change in the dominant stagnant workforce.


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