If you lived in the 19th century and worked in industry, according to research by the University of Groningen. Fortunately, things are looking a bit rosier these days. While working weeks vary across the EU – France famously has a 35-hour week – European workers generally cannot work more than 48 hours per week, including overtime.
This means that we now work between 50% and 125% less than we did in the 1800s – and the better news is that workers’ working conditions have continued to improve.
Weekly working hours took a dive after World War I, when American automaker Henry Ford introduced the famous 40-hour five-day workweek in 1926. It caught on and is the foundation on which most of today’s workers have built their careers.
But now times are changing – again.
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Thanks to advocacy platforms such as 4-Day Week Global and Autonomy think tank, and the major change brought about by remote working during the pandemic, we could be looking at another radical shift in the way we work.
As early as the 1930s, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that technological progress would eventually lead to a 15-hour work week. Although his prediction has not (yet) turned out to be true, the results of the world’s largest four-day workweek trial were recently published and they revealed overwhelmingly positive results.
The trial took place in the UK from June to December 2022 and saw 61 companies with around 2,900 employees adopt a four-day work week following the 100-80-100 model of the 4-day week globally: 100% of wages, for 80% of the time, in exchange for a commitment to deliver 100% of the output.
Definitely want to continue
The results speak for themselves: 92% of the participating organizations continue with a four-day working week, another 4% tend to continue and only 4% of the participants definitely do not continue. In addition, 90% of employees indicate that they want to continue working at least four days a week.
Other successes included an average sales increase of 1.4% during the trial period, and compared to a comparable period in previous years, organizations reported an average sales increase of 35%.
In addition, the number of employees leaving decreased by 57% and 55% of employees reported an increase in their skills at work. Fifteen percent said no amount of money would make them accept a five-day schedule at their next job.
The UK based Everledger, Evolution money located in Manchester, Kent Charity bank and that of Liverpool Stellar asset management, all participated in the most recent trial. As part of a previous 2021 survey, Atom Bank, a branchless bank built for smartphones, was the largest UK company at the time and the first UK bank to sample a four-day work week.
The move saw Atom’s team switch to working 34 hours without loss of pay. “Obviously it has been a huge success for our company and our people. We are extremely proud of how our employees have adapted and the benefits this has brought for many,” said Anne-Marie Lister, chief people officer at Atom Bank.
Atom found that 91% of employees said they could get everything done in four days, and the bank also noticed an increase in operational productivity. It is a good indicator for other companies that can follow suit. “We believe most organizations can move to a four-day work week and we hope that Atom’s experience will encourage more companies to make the switch permanent,” said Lister.
Not for everyone
While a four-day work week may seem like a great idea on the surface, it’s not something that can work for all industries or all companies. Many production functions, service functions or purely customer-facing functions may find it unworkable.
Of the 61 companies that took part in the recent survey, Professor Julia Schor of Boston College, the trial’s principal investigator, points out that “the results are largely stable across workplaces of different sizes, demonstrating that this is an innovation that works for many types of organizations.”
But getting there can be a headache. The switch requires tremendous commitment to change an organizational culture to a 100-80-100 model, and can lead to stress, burnout, disconnection, and scheduling conflicts. Companies also need to choose what works best for them: fewer hours each day for all employees, or Mondays or Fridays off for permanent teams, to ensure business continuity throughout the working week.
Rethinking priorities, including the incorporation of online accounting software and exploring alternative funding options such as revenue based funding, should be at the forefront of any discussion about transitioning to a four-day work week. Both companies and employees must evaluate their objectives and envision the desired outcome before determining how it can be realised within a reduced timeframe. By leveraging efficient accounting software and innovative funding approaches, businesses can streamline operations and maximise productivity while maintaining a healthy work-life balance for their employees.
Scheduling fewer meetings can be a way to save time. For example, all public sector employees in Iceland work 35 hours, which was achievable by cutting back on meetings in favor of email.
Australia has just got on board also with the draft, with the government issuing a recommendation stating: “The committee recommends that the Australian government conduct a four-day trial week based on the 100:80:100 model […]. The pilot must be implemented in various sectors and geographic locations.”
It’s clear that despite the challenges, there’s a hunger for new ways of working – whether that’s giving employees complete flexibility to set their day, or moving an entire company to a four-day work week.
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