According to the Financial Times, shadow chancellor John McDonnell has teamed up with cross-bench peer and economist Lord Robert Skidelsky to explore the logistics of a four-day working week, in the wake of increasing interest in the concept. [1]

As News & Views reported in September, a major report from the TUC suggested that UK organisations should adopt a four-day working week, arguing that it would enable workers to benefit from the rise of automation.

Signs of the concept gaining political traction emerged last month, when McDonnell told the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme: “We will look at the working week because I think people are working too long.” Now, Skidelsky has confirmed to the FT that he has had exploratory discussions with McDonnell about the logistics of holding a potential independent inquiry into “the feasibility of a shorter working week”.

Reflecting on the news, The Guardian’s Owen Jones commented: “Some of our all too precious time is being stolen: British workers do around two billion hours of unpaid overtime each year. So it is extremely welcome that Labour’s John McDonnell has approached eminent economist Lord Skidelsky to head an inquiry into potentially cutting the working week to four days.” Such a move, he added, “would enable us to redistribute hours from the overworked to the underworked.” [2]

However, in a column for The Express last month, Nick Ferrari Nick Ferrari at The Express blamed “cosseted millennials” for stoking the four-day week’s appeal, fuming: “madcap and often uncosted policies such as these are almost certain to result in wildly increased borrowing and therefore eye-watering rises in interest rates for mortgages”. [3]

The FT piece notes that, in 2000, France enforced a statutory, 35-hour week that opponents held up in the subsequent decade as a “symbol of declining international competitiveness”. However, the piece points out, the policy has never been revoked.

That said, the CBI has taken a cautious tone over the potential for a four-day week in the UK, saying: “At a time when flexible working is becoming more essential than ever, rigid approaches feel like a step in the wrong direction.”

So, should a four-day week be a prescriptive or regulated matter at all – or merely advised and then left to the discretion of individual firms as to whether they want to adopt it?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “By making working habits more malleable, technology has provided a challenge to the traditional notion of a ‘working week’. The same can be said for flexible working, with all the benefits it has brought to the workplace – and continues to bring as it becomes more and more widely accepted. So, purely on the basis of those two points, the idea of legislating to ensure that we will no longer work on Fridays just seems vaguely anachronistic.”

She explains: “If we take a long view of the history of the labour market, it becomes clear that the working week is already much shorter than it was in, say, the Victorian era. And research shows that a reduction in any given country’s average number of hours worked per week does not precipitate a GDP-per-capita decline. [4] Indeed, that research also indicates that longer working weeks do not equate with economic prosperity. So it is reasonable to negotiate with your employer, on a case-by-case basis, for shorter working hours if your productivity is consistently reliable.”

Cooper adds: “A statutory four-day week would be fine if earnings across the professions were more evenly balanced. But if we were to limit the capacity of people on lower wages to work as long as they feel they need to, they would hardly welcome that decision as good news. A shorter week has to make sense in the context of flexible working, what works for your organisation’s business model – and how you are aiming to ensure that your workforce is engaged to deliver the required levels of productivity.”

For further thoughts on delivering outcomes, check out these learning resources from the Institute

Source refs: [1] [2] [3] [4]

Image of John McDonnell courtesy of Ms Jane Campbell, via Shutterstock

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