Three-day weekend

Finland’s youthful Prime Minister Sanna Marin has become the darling of employees across the world due to her reported support for a four-day week. The employee advantages of this are pretty clear: Having another day with no work and no commute can free up personal time in a big way, reduce stress and increase productivity.

Some global companies have already tried this out with great results. Microsoft Japan implemented it in August last year and said it boosted sales by 40 per cent compared to the same month the previous year. There were other benefits, too. The company’s electricity consumption dropped by a quarter and there was a 59 per cent reduction in the printing of paper pages. Others have also done trial runs and experienced similar benefits. Another experiment published by the Harvard Business Review showed shorter work days increased productivity.

The results are not a surprise as happier employees do contribute to the company’s overall prosperity. In fact, throughout history, productivity has increased whenever labour works fewer hours. Henry Ford found that in 1926 when he became one of the first employers to introduce a five-day, 40-hour week. Four years later, Kellogg reduced factory accidents by over 40 per cent with the introduction of the six-hour day.

So is it time for companies to consider shifting to a four-day week? The answer, unfortunately, would be no. Even Finland is not planning to do anything like this. The “thank you” messages from employees perhaps prompted the Finnish prime minister’s office to clarify soon that a four-day week is not part of the government’s plans, and is not expected to be government policy in the near future. The utter disappointment increased after it was revealed that Marin had said this before becoming the prime minister and it was more a statement of aspiration.

There is a reason why the idea of employees working for four days for a full-time wage is not feasible. Any reduction in the working days is unaffordable without a commensurate increase in productivity or a matching reduction in pay. It’s true that employers will get some benefits in terms of increased productivity, morale and retention, but no company would move to a four-day week if it is not a profit-enhancing shift.

Another problem is that the four-day working week can be difficult to implement in service industries where customer demands need to be met. A Labour-backed study in the UK also warned against increasing exhaustion as contracted employees would cram their work into four days, plus negative impacts on unskilled and zero-hours workers who need the hours to get paid.

This is because employers can’t afford less than the standard full-time workweek of eight hours per day, five days a week. If they switch to a four-day week, employees will still have to work 40 hours at the rate of 10 hours per day for four days. So while people may feel refreshed by having an extra day off of work each week, they may also experience a drop in productivity after so many hours at work in a single day.

In the U.S., Treehouse, a large tech HR firm, implemented a four-day week in 2016, but as the firm failed to keep up with competition, it reverted to a five-day week. “It’s simply hard to compete if you’re working 80 per cent of the time your competitors are,” chief executive Ryan Carson told The Washington Post.

Broadly, there is obviously a need to bring down the total working hours in a week. Research has shown that employee output falls sharply after a 50-hour-work-week, and falls off a cliff after 55 hours —so much so that someone who puts in 70 hours produces nothing more with those extra 15 hours. This is evidence that those extra late nights in the office don’t necessarily boost output, and can put even rational employees on the edge.

The danger is that the CEO would end up with a bunch of multi-tasking, channel-flipping, fast-forwarding zombies, who are always banging the lift button without realising that it will only stop working.

But India Inc can hardly afford a four-day week as it’s simply too expensive. Implementing such a concept would invariably mean recruiting more people — something which is not economically sustainable. So at this point, it’s better to stick to flexible working hours, work from home, etc and let four-day week remain just an aspiration.

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