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“Happier, healthier, and more relaxed”: meet the bosses who think you should get Fridays off

Trials in the UK and New Zealand show a four-day working week could liberate workers and reset the work life-balance.

By Sam Forsdick

The Monday to Friday routine is an inherent part of modern working life. In the early 20th century, labour movements fought hard to encourage factory owners to introduce a two-day weekend. Now trade unions are looking to make three-day weekends a feature of the 21st century.

The concept of four-day working week remains unsurprisingly popular. The latest Trades Union Council report on the future of work found that 65 per cent believe that working less for the same pay would be a positive development.

During the TUC’s 150th gathering, general secretary Frances O’Grady, said: “I believe that in this century we can win a four-day working week, with decent pay for everyone. It’s time to share the wealth from new technology, not allow those at the top to grab it for themselves.”

With support for the idea growing some companies have already been taking the first steps to make a shorter working week a reality. 

Shoreditch-based digital design agency, Normally, which has worked with the BBC, Facebook, and Barclays, has a four-day week policy. Normally’s director Marei Wollersberger tells the New Statesman: “We really believe it’s made our work better. There is much higher productivity and there is time for more reflection.”

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Introduced in 2014, initially as an experiment, the company has continued with the policy ever since. It claims it has made employees “happier, healthier, and more relaxed”. Wollersberger says: “The results can be seen in our extremely low churn rate – agencies normally have a high turnover but we have only had one person leave in four years.”

One company in New Zealand have recently trialled a similar scheme. In what they claimed was a “world first”, Perpetual Guardian, one of New Zealand’s oldest trustee companies, offered workers one additional day off a week without any reduction in pay.

The trial took place over six weeks and was reported as being a great success with an increase in productivity, a seven percentage point decrease in stress, a 24 percentage point increase in work-life balance, and an increase in team engagement. Company director Andrew Barnes has taken the findings to the board to see whether the changes can be made permanent. A decision on the proposal is expected in the next few weeks. 

Currently, the Green Party is the only political party to officially endorse such a reform, announcing a four-day, 35-hour working week in its 2017 manifesto. Commenting on the TUC stance, Jonathan Bartley, co-leader of the Greens, says: “It’s great to see the TUC back a four-day working week, an example of how bright Green ideas can change the political agenda for the better. 

“A shorter working week would not only give people more free time to spend in their communities and with their families, but it would also help meet the challenge of automation and the changing world of work by sharing work around without a drop in wages.”

In order to make the four day week a reality, Wollersberger says companies need to make important adjustments and get rid of habits formed during the industrial age. “I think we need to change how we measure success. If you hang onto the idea that someone who cares about their job must work long hours then it will only lead to more stress.”

She adds: “I feel quite strongly that the government should incentivise businesses to reduce people’s working week. If you are a company who looks after their employees in this way you are inadvertently reducing the burden on the state through reduced health costs and reduced cost of social care. There are lots of benefits to our communities if we give people the ability to look after their loved ones and themselves.”

As the modern workplace continues to change and automation improves radical changes to workers’ rights and the economy will be needed. The benefits of the TUC’s four-day week have been proven in isolated cases, but more companies will have to follow suit if it is to become the norm.