Don’t muck up a four-day week

by | 8 Sep 2023

If a four-day week is treated as a soundbite rather than a transformative policy it will fail - and our society cannot afford it to fail. Let's get this right.

Scotland is developing a habit of having a good idea and then messing it up so much it turns into a bad idea. This is why it is really important that we don’t mess up another one – because developing a proper strategy for a four-day week is a good idea. So why are we at risk of messing this up and what do we need to do to get this right? 

First, why am I expressing concern that we’re going to mess this up? The idea that the Scottish Government was going to pilot a four-day week was widely briefed by the former First Minister in 2021 – but it never happened. The idea was one of a number of previous policies which were promised but didn’t happen that have been recycled into this week’s Programme for Government (PfG).

Again, this was heavily briefed to the media in advance of the PfG announcement, so getting to see the detail was important. But we didn’t; the entire media story was based on a single sentence in a bulletpoint just below another which appears to be a proposal for a mass sell-off of public buildings.

So what does the sentence say? “Commence the Four Day Working Week public sector pilot by the end of this calendar year, to assess the wellbeing, environmental, and productivity benefits of the Four Four Day Week could bring.” That’s all we have to work with – but its enough to raise concern.

The first is simple; there is absolutely no need or benefit in having another pilot study of the four-day week. This is something which has been done and studied so many times now that there is no gain from this. The only reason you would run a pilot would be to work out how to roll out widespread adoption of the policy across the whole economy – and that isn’t what is being proposed.

The second is that this is for ‘the public sector’, but it clearly cannot mean anyone in the public sector who is on the frontline of service delivery, because the NHS or care workforce (for example) are already working well beyond their capacity. This is very likely to be restricted to managers and mid-tier administrators.

The message this is sending out is appalling – this is a group of people who already have very good terms and conditions and are paid well, with good pension funds. They are not exactly loved by frontline workers and are often actively resented by many in the private sector. The ease with which they could move to a four-day week is the problem – they are not the ones bearing the brunt of the multiple crises in public service.

This is going to be far too easy to present as a Marie Antionette-like policy of an easy life for the elite while the rest of us slave on, working some of the longest hours of anyone in Europe. This is all absolutely asking for an angry backlash – and it would be deserved.

In reality, the four-day week isn’t a concept to tack on to this economy but one to build in as a feature of the economy to come

Which means it is hard not to feel that this is another of those cases of the Scottish Government seeking to attach itself to big ideas in ways that involve the least effort or change. And if this is a bulletpoint stuck into a draft at a late stage because they felt they were short of a PR line, it does this important idea a very great disservice.

Because getting a four-day week right needs serious consideration and discussion. First, let’s state the obvious – it’s a very good idea for too many reasons to list here. It is good for people’s health and wellbeing, good for the economy (if you get it right), good for the environment and potentially a great boost for society (if people are freed up to be more active participants in their communities).

And then we need quickly to address the obvious question – how do you do this without economic harm? You can do this in a soundbite by pointing to how well this has worked in many pilots. Basically, people work more productively over their four days than they do over five and so the increased productivity more than makes up for the lost time.

It is easy to point to this because it is true based on a large number of pilots. But these pilots are mostly in the white collar sector where you can increase productivity by focussing a bit better and wasting less time on diversions while working. That is not going to work in the same way for a nurse or a care worker. The pace and intensity of their work is already too high.

And in the private sector our expectation of an ‘always on’ economy means that we expect someone to be working, or the need to maintain rates of production means we need people at machines as much as possible to maximise the investment in the machinery. Letting Scotland’s army of public sector bureaucrats knock-off on a Thursday night is the easy stuff.

If we don’t make this an all-economy policy it would be entirely correct to resent it. But if we do want it to be economy-wide, we need to think that through properly and collectively. In reality, the four-day week isn’t a concept to tack on to this economy but one to build in as a feature of the economy to come.

The key is to work out the social and economic trade-offs that make this possible. For example, if we went onto a four-day week for everyone, we’d all have much more time to do things like shopping – so the case for moving back to a ‘day of rest’ on (probably) a Sunday, where we don’t expect every shop to be open, is a way of reducing the burden on the workforce.

Homeworking creates great opportunities. New technologies can make work more efficient and productive. Streamlining our approach to the workforce through upskilling is a realistic possibility. Simplifying the economy to strip out what are basically ‘bullshit jobs‘ could do a lot.

But none of these steps alone will help us achieve a meaningful four-day week. Homeworking can help people get more done in a shorter time – or it can be used to bully people into overworking for no extra pay. Artificial Intelligence can be used to reduce the burden on workers, or it can be used to dispose of them and concentrate wealth even further into the pockets of those who own it.

Making everyone richer in the ‘time economy’ makes our entire society richer – the stakes really are that high if we get this right

Investment in modern capital such as automated manufacturing can be transformative – but continuing to do the same thing less efficiently though low-pay work is perfectly possible too. We can upskill lower level staff to be able to cover the functions of central managers (a Nordic approach where the long ‘chains of command’ normal in our economy are much shorter) – or you can just fire more of your workforce.

A successful four-day week is a redistribution of time, but a free market left to its own devices would result in a very uneven redistribution of time. Good employers may do the right thing and invest to achieve the kind of workplace which enables a four-day week for all – but they can then be undercut (in the short term) by the ‘chancer economy’ which just squeezes wages down and working hours up.

So what is cheaper – industrial-quality ‘robot hoovers’ or a cheap cleaning service of low-pay immigrant workers? It could well be the latter. But what does a four-day economy need? The former.

It is really hard to cover this subject in the space available because there are so many factors and so many approaches that providing a proper overview of how to transition from here to a four-day economy is impossible. But it would be an understatement to say this is something which I personally believe is one of the big challenges of our era that we need to get right and to move towards systematically.

I have wanted for a while to write about ‘wellbeing’, to argue it is not something you work to achieve but something you have until something else comes along to take it away. And outside of poverty or serious illness, nothing does more to take away that basic wellbeing than overwork, work-based stress and anxiety and a lack of enough social time with our loved ones.

Plus we need an active, engaged, participative citizenry if we are to rise to the challenges of our age – these will not be met by centralised policy managers alone. If one out of a thousand people who shift to a four-day week uses their extra day to start a local kids sports club, a hundred children get supported into health-bringing physical activity. Our public care burden drops when we have a society with the time and space to care properly for our own loved ones.

Making everyone richer in the ‘time economy’ makes our entire society richer. The stakes really are that high if we get this right. But getting this right is a major, serious business. It needs an all-economy debate and discussion. It needs financial support because it requires investment. It is A Big Deal.

What it isn’t is a throwaway sentence in a policy document appearing to promise big change but instead offering precisely as little as possible to generate a headline – by giving an additional perk to what is already a pretty privileged group of people.

Please Scotland – we’re turning into the country where good ideas come to die. Please let’s stop a transformative four-day week from becoming the latest.

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