Finance

Wales’s Soviet experiment with the four-day week will backfire

Some people are refusing to return to the office at all, while others are leaving the world of work altogether, part of the so-called “Great Resignation”, a trend that has almost certainly been hugely exaggerated. Soon the younger generation are likely to consider the idea of ​​commuting long distances to and from an office akin to madness.

The same attitudes may apply one day to the idea of ​​working evenings, weekends, or overtime. In Belgium where people are about to be granted the right to request a four-day week, workers will also be allowed to ignore out-of-hours calls and emails from employers. It is a slippery slope.

The private sector should be free to make its own choices and indeed that is already what is happening. Camera-maker Canon and electronics giant Panasonic have made the move in Japan, Unilever’s New Zealand office has joined in, while in the UK, Atom Bank, WanDisco, and London’s Landmark hotel are among those leading the way.

But suggestions that the four-day working week is about to suddenly become mainstream, or indeed should be, are wide of the mark. It is a path fraught with danger. For a start, the timing is terrible. After two years of lockdown disruption and furlough, the economy needs to grow more than ever. Constraints are the last thing we need.

Proponents argue that a four-day week would energize workers, prompting a jump in productivity. But is it realistic to assume that slashing the working week by 20pc will produce a corresponding leap in output?

We will soon get to find out. Companies are being asked to join a six-month pilot program looking at the impact of shorter working hours on productivity and well-being. Participating companies will be expected to follow the 100:80:100 model: workers receive 100pc of their wages for working 80pc of the time, in return for committing to maintain 100pc of previous productivity levels.

It is perhaps no surprise that the Welsh government, which seems determined to keep its population under lockdown indefinitely under hapless First Minister Mark Drakeford, is mulling a trial on the spurious basis that it will mean a better work-life balance, boost productivity, create thousands of new jobs, and reduced carbon emissions.

A more likely outcome is that the work rate falls largely in line with the reduction in working hours. This is what happened in Sweden when a four-day week was introduced in 2015. So, rather than receiving the same pay for fewer hours, workers would more than likely have to accept a corresponding fall in income.

We only have to look at how undynamic the French economy became after the imposition of a 35-hour week two decades ago.

With the working from home phenomenon threatening to create a two-tier workforce, the risk is that the workplace becomes further polarized. Some jobs simply cannot be crunched into four days.

It reduces choice too. What about those that don’t just want to work extra hours but actually need to, to supplement poor wages, such as the millions working in the gig economy and the service sector, or those on zero hours contracts? With the cost of living spiralling, a four-day week could be financially crippling for many.

But there’s a more important point about the folly of pandering too hard to demands for a better work/life balance. For a start, it is wrong to assume that we all want to work less. Leisure or “down-time” can quickly become dead-time that is as bad for mental health as working long hours, while many people gain immense satisfaction and self-worth from going to work.

If the pendulum swings too far in the opposite direction, then the danger is that soon it isn’t just working in the office, or working a full week that people object to, but the very concept of work itself. We should be careful what we wish for.

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