We need radical change
but one day at a time,
says James Meadway

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Some unusually good news in the last week, as the final results from the world’s largest experiment in reduced working time have been published. Organised by the thinktank Autonomy, with researchers from Oxford and Boston universities, 61 companies agreed to trial reducing their employees’ working hours by a whole day, over a period of six months and, crucially, for no loss of pay. Spread across sectors from advertising agencies to small manufacturers, companies were given the chance to design and apply changes to their standard working week that would typically see the 3,000 people they employed between them allowed an extra day away.

The results are hugely encouraging. For employees, the benefits have been dramatic – 39 per cent of employees taking part report being less stressed, less anxiety and fatigue and fewer sleep issues. Mental and physical health both appear to have improved. Around two-thirds, perhaps not surprisingly, said they found it easier to combine work with care responsibilities and their social life. And perhaps most tellingly, a clear majority said they would want a pay increase to return to a five-day week in the future, suggesting they attached a significant value to an extra day off. Fifteen per cent said no amount of money could induce them to change.

This may not sound too surprising. The promise of more free time but for the same amount of pay has fairly obvious benefits for a worker. But on the business side the results are also striking. Fifty-six of the companies (over 90 per cent!) said they would continue to run the four day week, and 18 will make the shift permanent. Revenues for participating businesses stayed broadly the same during the trial, suggesting reduced working hours was not turning into reductions in sales. The implication is that people working reduced hours actually became more productive in the hours they were still at work.

This is the great promise behind the idea of a four day week. Supporters of reduced hours have always claimed that they would produce a rare win-win. Not only would those employees now gain an extra day off, but happier, less stressed and tired staff would be more productive. Instead of reduced working time being a cost for the company, people who were more motivated and effective in their hours at work would actually be a benefit to the company. Both sides would benefit.

This all sounded nice on paper but had been harder to pin down in reality. This trial starts to fill in some of the blanks. Despite the difficulties, as the researchers admit, in measuring company productivity, the results are indicative. The story of the win-win looks like it may be true.

There are some questions to raise. Most obviously, there’s the issue of what gets called sample selection bias – the trial was voluntary, so only companies that wanted to take part would take part. These are likely to be companies that were most suited to introducing a four day week, for whatever reason, and most likely to make a success of it. But the trial results are still dramatic even allowing for this bias.

But there are workplaces where such reductions would be much harder to implement. This applies especially in places where the opening times have to be rigid – like schools or hospitals, for instance. It’s not impossible to solve the problem of fixed opening hours. Smart timetabling, using a computer to allocate employees’ time most effectively around those reduced hours and goodwill from the employees themselves could get around the problem. Even so, if a hospital has to be kept open 24 hours but staff are reducing their working time, more staff are likely to be needed.

The bigger picture, however, is that the growing movement for shorter hours is part of the dramatic shake-up of our ideas about work and working life that the pandemic has brought about. The so-called Great Resignation of summer 2021, when millions of people in the US and the UK chose to switch jobs, was an early edition of this; the Great Strike Wave that began in 2022 was another. The increased willingness of people, right across the world, to think differently about how, when and for how long they work points towards a fairly fundamental revision in how they think about something most of us spend much of our waking lives doing.

That has radical potential. Paid work is the most fundamental institution in an economy like ours. It’s pretty much the definition of capitalism that some people are paid by others to perform an agreed type of work for a certain period of time. If millions of people are choosing to quit their current job and try something else, or take early retirement, it starts to challenge the status of paid work. If people organise themselves into trade unions and go on strike for more pay, it’s a more significant challenge. And if society as a whole starts to decide to work less, it’s perhaps the most serious challenge of all: the idea that we can reclaim our own time.

James Meadway is an economist and director of the Progressive Economy Forum, an independent thinktank (progressiveeconomyforum.com)

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