The four-day week is starting to move from fantasy to the mainstream: Unilever, the massive corporation that owns brands such as Dove and Ben and Jerry’s, is now testing a shorter workweek with employees in New Zealand, who will be paid for five days while working four. Microsoft ran a similar pilot in Japan in 2019, giving employees Fridays off, and saw productivity grow by 40% despite the fact that workers spent less time in the office. Now, the Spanish government is considering a proposal that would incentivize companies across the country to shorten working hours without a cut in pay.
“Now that we have to rebuild our economy, Spain has the perfect opportunity to go for the four-day or 32-hour week,” Íñigo Errejón, a politician from Spain’s Más País party, told the Independent. The Más País party wants the government to run a pilot giving grants to companies that test the idea. “It is a policy for the future that allows for an increase in the productivity of workers, improvements to physical and mental health, and reduces our impact on the environment,” Errejón said. “We must put ourselves at the forefront of Europe as we did 100 years ago with the shift to an eight-hour working day.” In Barcelona, a draft regional budget has a similar proposal.
Globally, companies that have pioneered the concept have seen that it can work without subsidies—as with Microsoft, companies have seen that productivity actually increases with fewer hours, while job satisfaction jumps higher. But in the current economic crisis, grants could help push companies to make the change. Spain’s proposal is partly inspired by a German concept, Kurzarbeit, which let employers cut hours during the global financial crisis while the government helped cover a portion of the lost wages. Workers could use the fifth day of the week to learn skills for a new job. The grant model “does make sense in certain contexts,” says Andrew Barnes, who helped launch a successful four-day-week program at the New Zealand company Perpetual Guardian in 2018, and who now consults with other companies and governments considering the switch through an organization called 4 Day Week.
A program such as Spain is considering could also help lead to more permanent change. “We would argue very clearly that if you shift to a productivity-based four-day-week model, you’re going to get an improvement in productivity,” Barnes says. “I think the Kurzarbeit model is something that you can use as a stepping-stone. You could use that to say, let’s reduce the working week to four days. But if we then get that improvement in productivity as a consequence, then actually, as economic conditions improve, we could keep our staff on four days and go back to paying them the five-day wage.”
During the pandemic, Barnes says he has seen interest in the four-day-week model grow. “One of the impediments to working a four-day week was understanding productivity,” he says. “People use being in the office as a surrogate for productivity. If you’re working five eight-hour days, I’m getting 40 hours of output. Now, of course, that isn’t true. What the pandemic did is that sent everybody home, and you have to find an alternative method of measuring productivity. A lot of companies then did that. And then they found that, hey, presto, people were just as productive even though they weren’t there. So that meant that they did two things. They got an appreciation of productivity. And secondly, they got a level of trust—that actually they could rely on people to do their jobs, even if they weren’t supervised.”
Now, he says, many more companies and governments are beginning to consider the idea. “It’s made a lot of companies start to rethink how they are going to work,” he says. “They know they’re not going to go back to what we had before. So what they’re trying to do is say, well, let’s have a think about some of the things. Progressively, you’re starting to see some large companies make the shift into a four-day week. And I think that that will accelerate as we go forward.”