The clunky debate over four versus five days should be replaced by a focus on flexibility and individal autonomy.
Why should five days of work per week actually be the best option? This question is being asked more and more. The shock of the pandemic showed that it is possible to work differently.
In many countries, single-earner households have become a thing of the past. When both partners are active in the labour market, other models are needed. Labour is scarce, in Germany more than at any other time since the Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle)—and Germany is not alone. This makes it easier to have one’s wishes heard than in times of mass unemployment.
Today, especially the younger generations want to work less and have more leisure time—that’s what we often hear. Yet this may not be true: representative survey results in Germany show that, on average, nowadays people do not want to work shorter hours. For men, the desired working hours have decreased but only slightly, by one to two hours per week. After a temporary increase since, this would simply take us back to the 1990s.
Accordingly, surveys have found that only a small minority of full-time employees would prefer to switch to a four-day week. This however becomes a clear majority if the salary is not reduced. This is unsurprising, since working four days a week for the same salary would mean an hourly wage premium of 25 per cent.
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Such wage compensation would not be necessary if, as in the Belgian model, the working hours of the fifth day were distributed over the remaining four. Together with breaks and commuting times, however, this would add up to well over ten hours per day. Such long days are not conducive to performance and nursery opening hours do not accommodate them.
This working-time model would be likely to result in care work being shouldered even more one-sidedly by women. It seems unlikely to gain widespread acceptance.
With an actual reduction of working hours, full wage compensation could only be generated if hourly productivity increased accordingly. One could definitely achieve higher productivity with shorter working time: productivity as well as health can suffer when hours are too long. Research however indicates that working time is not yet excessive in a standard German 38-hour full-time week.
Nevertheless, pilot studies, such as those in Iceland or most recently in the United Kingdom, suggest that full performance could be achieved after all if working times were reduced to four days. One should though look carefully at what conclusions can be drawn from these results.
Participation in such studies is usually voluntary. Those already positively disposed towards a four-day week who see good possibilities for implementation in their company may thus be more likely to participate. Moreover, other measures come in train: organisational changes, more efficient processes, new technologies. All these can bring progress but the same results would be possible with five or three days a week, instead of four.
In addition, workload becomes more intense if full performance is to be achieved with one less day. This could lead to additional stress, with social communication typically limited. Such potential negative side-effects would however only become apparent in the medium term, after the study period.
Finally, the four-day debate often seems rather one-sided. A bus driver, for example, cannot drive more quickly for four days so as to take off the fifth. The same applies to many other professions requiring a certain amount of time to be covered—from nursing to sales.
Pilot studies can teach us a lot about how to initiate change. We should not however derive from the pilot studies the expectation that a mere reduction in working hours would improve performance across the board.
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While people today do not necessarily want to work shorter hours than they used to, many would still like to reduce their working hours—today as much as in the past. In most cases, a reduction by a whole day is not desired but still a large group (although not the majority) would be interested in some kind of reduction. Yet some others would like to increase their working hours.
All this is related to numerous factors which can change over the lifecourse, such as care work and professional autonomy. Preferences change for those who are younger and those who are raising a family—and older people often want to shorten working hours too. Accordingly, companies are successful above all in their attempts to retain employees who are still entitled to a pension by offering shorter, more flexible working hours.
In view of the staff shortages and the imminent demographic shrinkage, it does not make any obvious sense from the employer’s point of view to reduce working hours in general. But offering flexible reductions (and extension options) can actually be profitable for employers.
Part-time and full-time work are still quite separate, especially in Germany. Those who go part-time rarely return to full-time. But better career, earnings and further-training opportunities are available in full-time employment.
Greater permeability could avoid part-time work becoming a trap and make better use of women’s potential in career development, not least because there could be greater reliance on fathers, who could temporarily work shorter hours without fear of career setbacks. Such working conditions could also be used as a locational advantage, since countries such as Germany are increasingly dependent on attracting and retaining immigrants.
The X-day week
So what about the four-day week? Yes, absolutely—for those who want it. But anyone who prefers to work five days should be able to, and those who prefer to work three days should be allowed that too. Anyone who works more will also earn more, but professional development should work equally well in all configurations. So get ready for the X-day week!
The X-day model offers employees the opportunity, individually and over the course of their lives, to adjust their working hours and how these are distributed across the week. For companies, this flexibility can be a challenge—to meet individual requests and at the same time function successfully, in terms of organisation and co-operation. But it is worth it, because it means employees are satisfied with their work situation, especially where they can influence their working hours themselves.
This should be cleverly combined with opportunities for mobile work, which has leapt forward since the pandemic. This requires transparent distribution of responsibility, regulated communication and feedback, clear mutual expectations and defined limits.
All this would be a progressive labour politics with a future. Company and sectoral collective agreements would be the right means to implement such a policy.
Employers are well advised to invest in the satisfaction of their people. According to new findings, company engagement and commitment to work have declined in Germany. But here too, the conventional wisdom is not correct: this is not due to ‘Generation Z’, whose members betray comparatively high values, and it preceded Covid-19.
Nor is there any such animal as the good-humoured Quiet Quitter, who still puts so much effort into his work that he does not break down and can continue to work energetically and with motivation: less commitment and engagement go hand in hand with less effort. But the results also show that a strong preference for separating work and private life does not have to diminish effort—if commitment and engagement are strong.
In the pilot studies on the four-day week, the switch often seems to serve as a trigger for change. This is exactly how the X-day week should be used at company level—as a spark to rethink processes, to involve employees in planning, to take up ideas and to create new motivation for individual and collective work. In this way, performance and productivity can be increased, as can hourly wages.
On this basis, everyone can then make the best possible choice for themselves as to how much time they want to invest in their work. It should not be the shortage of skilled workers, or the digital transformation or the Zeitgeist that decides—but we alone.
Enzo Weber is a professor of economics at the Institute for Employment Research, Germany’s largest institute in the social sciences. He is a researcher and political adviser in the transformation of labour markets, demographic change and social security.