As Britain begins the world's largest trial of the four-day work week, other European nations are experimenting with the idea too. Could a permanent three-day weekend be in reach for workers elsewhere?
PARIS - Since remote work has become part of normal life in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, employers are now exploring other options to reduce the amount of time that employees spend in the office. One popular but controversial solution is the four-day work week. Europe is, not surprisingly, the first place to begin testing the feasibility of employees working one fewer day a week without sacrificing any of their pay.
The choice to implement a four-day work week is a difficult one, as it comes with lots of questions for skeptical employers: What really are the benefits for employees, and will they come at the cost of productivity? Or, somewhat on the contrary, will the four-day workweek reduce burnout and turnover? To answer these questions, we can look to the growing number of European countries who have already implemented some form of the four-day workweek.
In 2015, the small northern European country of Iceland launched an extensive four-year study. 2,500 employees switched from working 40 hour weeks to 35 or 36 hour weeks without taking a pay cut. According to analysts who have examined the data generated by this trial, the reduction of workers’ hours improved the balance between private and professional life by measurably stimulating both the productivity and well-being of employees.
Since then, the Icelandic unions have advocated for the widespread adoption of 35-36 hour workweeks. As a result, some 86% of the entire working population in Iceland now benefits from reduced working hours and more flexible contracts which allow them to request reduced hours.
Caroline Diard, a teacher and researcher in HR management and Law at ESC Amiens in France, confirms the Icelandic findings: “It’s a great tool for building loyalty, motivation, and making jobs more attractive while companies are struggling to recruit new employees.” She elaborates that, “Employees can experience a halo effect: With the excitement that comes at the beginning, they may become more involved, more productive, but does this effect last? We will see in the long term.”
The UK is the latest country to jump on the bandwagon. Starting on June 6, 3,300 “guinea pigs” from more than 70 companies began working 80% of their usual hours and will continue to do so for the next six months. The idea is that if the guinea pigs maintain the same level of productivity as before, they should receive the same pay regardless of the number of hours they spend in the office.
This pilot program, which according to The Guardian is the largest in the world, was organized by several universities, including Oxford, Cambridge, and Boston College in the United States, in collaboration with think tanks Autonomy and 4 Day Week Global. The results, which will measure the effects on productivity and quality of life, will be announced in 2023.
In Valencia, Spain, workers will participate in a trial supported by left-wing Spanish political party Más País, which worked hand in hand with the unions to develop a framework for a reduced workweek.
The state has pledged up to 10 million euros in grants to companies that will experiment with reduced working hours, but Más País is still seeking another 40 million euros in funding for the trials.
About 160 companies and more than 3,000 employees will be involved in the upcoming trials, according to the specialized press, and the initiative is in the process of being rolled out.
Lawmakers in Lithuania, which has a population of 2.7 million, approved a new plan in April: starting next year, public sector employees with children under three years of age will have the right to work 32 hours a week without taking a pay cut from their 40 hour salary.
According to Viktorija Čmilytė-Nielsen, head of the Lithuanian parliament, this change will help the public sector be more competitive against private sector companies, which are generally more lenient with hours and compensation.
Čmilytė-Nielsen also pointed out that this law was designed in part to address the significant and persistent wage gap between men and women, as studies tend to show that this gap widens when women have children.
Workers in Belgium may soon be able to voluntarily work nine and a half hours over four days, instead of eight hours a day, five days a week. Belgium’s plan does not resemble any of those to maintain productivity by reducing hours. Instead, it seeks to grant parents flexibility to work hours that allow them to spend necessary time at home, while still working the full amount of hours belonging to a traditional work week.
The proposal, which has not yet made it to Parliament, seeks to both draw lessons from the new ways of working that have emerged over the course of the pandemic and to enable Belgium to increase its rate of employment from 71% to 80% by 2030.
In May, Automatic Data Processing (ADP) published a large survey on the pace of work in several countries around the world. In its results, the survey indicated that more than 60% of French people would be ready to adopt the four-day work week, and that nearly one in three employees would be willing to do it at a reduced rate.
Four-day initiatives emerge every now and then in France. But, despite the fact that the question has been a part of public discourse since the 90s, the discussion always remains private. In early February, then Minister of Labor Elisabeth Borne ruled out that the state would introduce any plan to support a reduced work week. According to Borne, it should remain up to private companies to decide how much time their employees spend in the office.
Borne had the following to say on the four-day workweek: “In some companies, there may be negotiations (...) but I think that we cannot impose such a measure at all.”
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