Thursday, 15 Apr 2021

Has Covid killed the Kiwi dream of a four-day week?

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The four-day week rolled into the 2018 news cycle like a bucket of KFC chicken arriving at the office. Everyone wanted a piece: journalists, businesspeople, politicians and armchair critics all reached over each other to get in on the action.

Soon, companies were signing up and we even had the Prime Minister responding to questions about whether a four-day week was viable.

The enthusiasm spread, with companies around the world launching their own experiments.

This looked to be the first generation of workers in decades to be in line for a major rethink of the working week

That was until an obstacle just one-400th the width of a human hair brought everything to a screeching halt.

After the arrival of the Covid-19 virus, numerous surveys are now showing that the working-from-home trend has actually tugged the working day in the opposite direction to what advocates hoped.

A Frog Recruitment poll of 1000 New Zealanders found that nearly half were working longer hours for less money than they were before Covid.

These trends are in line with international studies in the UK, Austria, the Netherlands, Canada and the US, showing that on average, workers now put in an additional two hours a day.

Instead of the promise of the four-day week coming to fruition, many workers are instead seeing six days squeezed into the usual five.

At a time when you would most expect a four-day week to work, events have conspired to leave workers more vulnerable, burnt out and disconnected than they were before.

Perpetual Guardian founder Andrew Barnes, a four-day-week pioneer, isn’t surprised employers have pulled backed from anything experimental in the current context.

“Caution has been our response to Covid-19 and caution is now dominating everything,” Barnes tells the Weekend Herald.

“Governments have identified that being cautious wins votes when it comes Covid-19.

“And it’s not only happening here in New Zealand. You also saw it recently in the vaccination programmes in Europe, where a statistical anomaly relating to blood clots led to everything being stopped.”

An overly cautious approach has certainly worked in getting New Zealand through the worst of the pandemic, but Barnes is worried the over-arching sense of nervousness is stifling innovation in other areas.

“We’re not engaging in any innovative thought and it’s broader than just how we work. Our Government, for instance, came in promising radical things on mental health, housing, child poverty and healthcare – and, other than Covid, it’s done absolutely nothing.

“This is worse than being a centrist. I think inertia has taken over.”

That caution has also made itself felt in the business community. “Conservatism reigns supreme in business, and this comes down to a misappreciation of risk,” says Barnes.

“If you do nothing, you will not fail. But the problem with this approach is that you then also have a zero per cent chance of solving the bigger issues in the workforce.”

The fear of failure has only increased in the pandemic and workers have also willingly made concessions as concerns persist over the stability of their roles.

In this context, the obvious response is to do nothing, to leave the tinkering for another day and simply focus on getting through the current crisis.

It is, however, becoming increasingly apparent that pandemics don’t just disappear when vaccines start rolling out, and that we will be dragging the economic impacts of this moment well into the future.

Meanwhile, the bigger pressure points that have long affected the workforce persist andin some cases have been accentuated by the pandemic.

“Is what we’re currently doing going to fix our mental health problem? No,” says Barnes. “Is it going to fix our productivity problem? No. Is it going to fix inequality? No. Is it going to fix the racial and gender divide? No. Is it going to fix the pressures on family cohesion? No. Is going to fix our training issues? No.”

Barnes argues that the core arguments for the adoption of a four-day week on a broader scale remain relevant in the context of the pandemic and could play a role in ameliorating at least some of those problems.

The obvious concern among both businesses and governments is that the cost of having staff on a four-day week might be too great to justify the move.

But Barnes is quick to point out that this view depends entirely on the old focus on how many hours are worked, versus what is actually achieved in those hours. He says numerous studies, including the one conducted at his own firm, show that a four-day week actually increases productivity rather than reducing it.

There is also a growing body of evidence suggesting that a four-day week will not have the dire impact on profitability many business leaders fear it will.

A study conducted this year by UK think tank Autonomy, using profitability figures from more than 50,000 UK firms, found that under a worst-case scenario, a four-day week would be affordable for most businesses as events move past the initial phase of the Covid-19 crisis.

The authors of the report went on to suggest that the public sector could prevent a steep rise in unemployment by supporting companies in the transition to a four-day week.

This is exactly what the Spanish Government has done, funding a €50 million (NZ$83m) pilot that will see 6000 employees move to a 32-hour work week as early as September this year.

The move by the southern European nation seems fitting in that it was also the first country in the world to introduce the eight-hour working day in 1919 – a revolutionary idea, which also followed a deep economic crisis.

Barnes says there’s no reason why the New Zealand Government couldn’t step in and run a similar trial in the local market.

“The Government doesn’t need to legislate to make it compulsory. What it needs to do is help companies experiment,” says Barnes.

Beyond the boost to productivity and worker wellbeing, he believes that a four-day week could also play a role in furthering some of the other longer-term objectives Jacinda Ardern has tabled, including climate change and worker training.

The training environment is currently limited to those who are out of work or between jobs, but the broader adoption of a four-day week could see many more workers presented with an opportunity to upskill.

That additional day of freedom will give more workers the freedom to pursue training in fields that are either related to their current roles or in an entirely different industry.

The importance of this goes well beyond the shortage of tradies and construction workers. The growing spectre of automation becomes more apparent each year and will threaten the jobs of many workers in the decades to come. Without have the time to upskill, these workers become more vulnerable every year.

“The mistake we’re making is that we’re viewing the world as static,” says Barnes.

“The world is not static. You have to start thinking about the fact that just because you’re working in this industry doesn’t mean that the skills needed are going to remain the same.”

Barnes proposes perhaps going even a step further by reducing the university or school week to four days – a move that would open educational establishments to train people in various disciplines.

“If you give people time, that’s what they’ll use for their side gig. That’s the time they will use to innovate. That’s the time they will upskill. And you could even make that a structural part of the job if you want to. And that’s when we’ll get innovation.”

The concept of a four-day week certainly isn’t for everyone. There are some companies and even workers who would prefer to keep things the way they are.

But the nature of work has shifted enormously from what it was in the early 1900s when businesses started to shift toward the eight-hour day.

The company owners who once had their staff working 12 to 14 hours a day would have cried foul when the world started changing. The arguments they used were exactly the same as those we see today: “We’ll never be able to get everything done in less time”; “it might work for their industry but definitely not mine”; and the old favourite “businesses won’t be able to afford it”.

Progress is always a fearful process. But once we jump in, the water is rarely as cold as we imagined it would be.

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