Voices: A four-day working week would help those who need it most – women

There is a basic misapprehension that longer hours equals higher productivity  (Getty/iStock)
There is a basic misapprehension that longer hours equals higher productivity (Getty/iStock)

The largest public sector trial of the four-day working week is now complete, and the results are in… and it’s a triumph!

Last January, when South Cambridgeshire District Council rolled out a shortened working week for hundreds of desk-based staff, as part of an experiment to see if service levels could be maintained while improving the work-life balance of employees, it was much to the chagrin of Tory MPs. They clutched their pearls in dismay at the very notion.

One called the workplace trial “an ideological crusade”, while a Conservative minister told the Lib Dem council leader, Bridget Smith, to “end your experiment immediately”.

Wow. Who’d have thought the idea of a change to the standard working pattern mutually beneficial to employee and employer – staff retention is notoriously difficult in the incredibly competitive local employment market – would provoke so much fear? And what exactly were they scared of?

The premise of the trial, led by academics at the universities of Cambridge and Salford, was simple but radical: 100 per cent of work was to be completed in 80 per cent of the time, for 100 per cent of pay. The concept of resource efficiency must have become so alien to the Tories that it seemed like a threat.

Here, I think, is the basic misapprehension – that longer hours equals higher productivity. It’s a false equivalence, as Greece is likely to discover after a few months of the roll-out of its six-day working week. A four-day week isn’t “less work for the same pay”;  it’s just a more flexible, more appealing working pattern that’s been shown to have a host of benefits, including reduced risk of employee burnout, increased productivity, and reductions in sickness and absence. I mean, seriously, what’s not to love here?

A four-day working week is also more inclusive for those with caregiving responsibilities – and, let’s face it, that’s usually the womenfolk – and can help families save on childcare costs. I know lots of women who’ve gone part-time to four days a week because of caring responsibilities and have ended up working a full-time job for less pay. Going the way of South Cambs could help even up those hidden workplace gender inequalities.

In my experience, most organisations could easily allow for a four-day week. I’ve had a few jobs over the last 30 years – from brewery sales rep to business owner, teacher to academic – but no matter how different the jobs, they all had one thing in common: pointless, time-wasting bureaucracy.

I remember once going into a four-hour meeting – A. Four. Hour. Meeting. – about some new strategy. We sat in silent, collective resentment while two blokes competed over who could speak the loudest for the longest, and then had an awkward group lunch of corporate catering: you know the kind, those woeful, clammy sandwiches that have sweated in clingfilm overnight, and tepid tea that tastes of stewed metal.

What happened at the end of the meeting? We were split into “action groups”, and another set of meetings was arranged before we all met again for another four-hour meeting to report back on our smaller meetings. After this endless discussion, did the earth shatter with our radical decision-making? Did it hell.

I’m sure that experience of wasted work time is shared across organisations and sectors. Just think what could be done with those squandered hours – and money. I’m not saying that meetings are always useless, but most are – and, in my experience, with proper organisation and efficient chairing, they are most effective when taking less than 45 minutes.

Some of you will be scoffing into your wilted cheese and pickle sandwich, and that a four-day working week is bonkers idealism. It’s not. It’s about raising productivity, using time efficiently and retaining employees.

Yes, it’s true Asda scrapped its scheme allowing managers to work 44 hours over four days for the same pay because the early starts and late finishes weren’t feasible for employees reliant on public transport to get them to and from work. That says more about the country’s faulty infrastructure than the viability of a four-day working week. Other companies, like the UK digital bank Atom, implemented a four-day week in September 2021; by November 2023, it reported that 95 per cent of employees felt it had improved their work-life balance.

Some people may not care about other people’s work-life balance. Maybe they’re stuck in some hellish Gordon Gekko “sleep is for wimps” and “greed is good” mentality but, for the rest of us, who want to do a good job for our employers and still have the capacity to live a life outside the workplace, a four-day week sounds like common sense.