Working for four days and chill for three days – that not just makes up the seven days of a standard week, but it might also be the future of work.
The basic idea behind the four-day week is to put an arrangement in place, whereby workers spend four days at work while spending three days with family, attend further education, a community college, or university.
Such a scheme can be a part of a more general flexibility agreement that includes working from home – a non-reversible trend in today’s working life.
Yet, the reduction of working time has a long tradition dating back even before Engels’ seminal book, The Condition of the Working Class of 1844. Since then we saw working time reductions from 16 and 14 hours to 12 hours per day, to 10 hours, to 8 1/2, to 8 hours, and in some places to seven hours per day: Germany’s metal industry, France, etc.
In recent times, the four-day week movement has grown considerably. Today, an increasing numbers of businesses and other organisations around the world are testing and moving permanently to an environmentally friendly four-day working week of around 32 hours – with no pay reductions for workers.
Instead, most businesses and organisations have found that a four-day week is a win-win for employees and employers. Trials have indicated that it leads to a better work-life balance, lower stress-levels, and it delivers what capitalism loves: increased productivity. In short, an overwhelming majority of studies report that a four-day week leads to increased productivity and decreased stress.
For example, the four-day week has been in force in Belgium since November 2022. Many companies in this country are also making working hours more flexible. Belgium’s justice minister cheered when noting on the four-day work week, it is a booster for the economy, for which we have been fighting for a long time. That was in spring 2022.
At that time, the Belgian government had agreed on more flexible working time models. Since November 2022, there is now a legal right to have a four-day week. But it is not only in Belgium that the four-days-a-week movement is changing work.
According to Germany’s Forsa public polling, an unsurprising 71% of employees in Germany welcome a four-day week. As a consequence, many companies and corporations are looking at new working time models.
Yet, the four-day week has also arrived in Germany’s capital of Berlin. In Berlin, cutting-edge, sustainable, and vegan condoms manufacturer Einhorn, for example, is producing condoms using a new system of working time. Einhorn’s head of marketing at the Berlin hygiene products manufacturer supports the idea.
Einhorn is a start-up company generated sales of around seven million Euros in 2021 with products ranging from vegan condoms to menstrual cups. Yet, the young company is built entirely on the four-day week. As one employee noted, we came from the new working life movement and so it was obvious that we rely on new working time models.
Today, many young employees – generation Z or millennial socialists – have been looking at more than just a good salary. And that is one of the reasons why the Berlin condom maker has changed. Since June 2022, the weekly working time has been 32 hours – with full wage compensation.
As one Einhorn manager put it, of course, when we switched to the four-day week, we were worried about whether sales would drop or projects would be completed on time … it worked. He added, transparency and communication were crucial.
Beyond that, the condom manufacturer also introduced a level of industrial democracy into the company. A salary council is elected every two years at Einhorn. This workers’ council regulates HRM and work issues at Einhorn while its salary council discusses wages matters.
For these councils, three to four members are elected by the employees for a two-year term. Einhorn’s marketing manager is a member of both committees. He said, we have a principle: the highest salary can be a maximum of four times as high as the lowest.
Einhorn’s 4-to-1 ratio is way better compared to what management super-guru Peter Drucker advocated: a 20-to-1 ratio. Today, the workers-CEO ratio is at an abysmal 670-to-1 in the USA.
For a typical Einhorn worker, this means a basic salary of around € 2,700 Euros – US$ 2,900. On his extra day off, one Einhorn employee likes to pick up his guitar. He also has more time for his three-year-old daughter. Perhaps this might be the true meaning of work-life balance.
In addition to his Einhorn job, one worker started coaching and training people. He thinks, the four-day week just takes work pressure off you.
In Belgium meanwhile, the four-day week brings more people in waged employment. Since November 2022, employees have been legally entitled to work forty hours per week – on four days, only.
And the four-day week – like Berlin’s Einhorn firm – comes with the same salary. Alternatively, the number of hours can be reduced. It is about giving employees more flexibility and freedom, says Belgium’s Prime Minister Alexander De Croo.
The employment rate in Belgium is only at 66%, where Germany’s is at 77%. Government officials in Belgium believe that with more flexible working hours, it can reach those for whom it has – so far – not been interested to take up a job.
A German expert on the four-day week believes that this is already legally possible in Germany, as well. Yet, Germany’s ultra-conservative businesses and their business lobbyists remain reluctant. In the country of Karl Marx, they are likely to think that the four-day week might reduce exploitability. But it is also an issue of power relations. As so often, corporate lobbyists like to argue that the whole thing is a matter for individual companies.
Meanwhile, Germany’s neoliberal lobbying agency – the Institute of German Business – in Cologne is forced to agree. One of its economists said, by law, this is already possible in Germany. The legal maximum working time is ten hours per day. However, it is questionable whether such a concentration of work [into four days] actually promotes creativity.
Back in Belgium, employees can “bundle” their working hours to four days – a concession on employer-driven flexibility. Yet, when companies and corporations reduce working hours, wages and salaries are all too often also reduced. Perhaps employers believe in their own hallucination that they need to make sure that companies do not overpay workers!
In neighboring Germany, companies practice two models. In the first model, working four days a week happens with full wage compensation; in the second model, working less means less pay.
For the meantime, the Nordic country of Iceland made a move towards the four-day week in 2015. Icelandic employees of public institutions tested the four-day week there. They worked 35 hours per week instead of the traditional 40 hours. According to a study, worker productivity and performance remained the same or even improved.
Unsurprisingly, Germany’s employer-funded economist reacts with restraint by saying, I would not like to overemphasize this. He also questioned whether productivity gains in public institutions in Iceland can be so easily transferred to the private economy in other countries. Of course.
Yet, the four-day week in Iceland also came with full wage compensation. Germany’s corporate economist remains skeptical about the full wage for four days of work. He argued that this would be a wage increase of 25%. His corporate lobbying institute believes that every employee can already agree on this with his employer. It just means less work for less wage.
In any case, whether it’s in Iceland, Germany, or Belgium, working hours and wages are not set by the state. In fact, these conditions are negotiated by employees, their trade unions, and companies.
This also means, that if collective bargaining parties want a certain model, they can negotiate this and agree on its final shape. The message remains clear. There is an autonomy to bargain collectively – this is respected by both sides – in most of Europe, at least.
Beyond all that, the four-day workweek has seen rather pragmatic implementations. In one example, a more flexible working time model shifted work from Monday to Thursday and from Tuesday to Friday. Yet, in some companies, employees can stay within the five-day week.
The four-day workweek isn’t dogmatic. Instead, a work-life balance is the key issue – particularly after COVID-19. Proponents of the four-day week are already advising medium-sized companies on what they call “have the courage to change”.
If we look at the Scandinavian country of Denmark, for example, we see participation in the four-day week for years. And this is working. It is strongly supported by local trade unions. Ever since the founding of trade unions, shorter working hours have been a common goal.
In the 1950s, German trade unions sought a shortening of working time. The campaign ran under the still well-known motto, On Saturdays, Dad belongs to me! The poster showed a child. During the 1960s, the 40- hour week finally came and in the 1980s, the IG Metall promoted and won the 35-hour week.
Having implemented the 35-hour week during the 1990s, German trade unions think that the time has come to debate the four-day week. In contrast to flexible working time models such as those in Belgium, a four-day week – the Germany unions believe – should never postpone more general reductions of working hours.
In addition to a day gained, it is crucial for employees that the burden of working hours decreases overall, and that any new model does not mean a reduction in wages.
In its 2021 collective bargaining negotiations, German trade unions IG Metall moved towards the possibility of a four-day week to secure overall employment levels in companies like carmakers. This should secure employment during the transition towards electric cars. The arrangement is designed to secure stable monthly salary.
In other words, German unions reject drastic salary cuts. Instead, it is conceivable that the state supports reduced working hours with a partial wage compensation and exempts increased remuneration from tax.
The overall conclusion – after the initial experience in Germany’s metal and its all-powerful car industry – was that with a little creativity, a reduction in working hours is conceivable everywhere. And it works in white-collar areas (knowledge and professional jobs) as well as in manufacturing and production.
In the end, the debate on the four-day workweek is well on the way in Europe with some countries already showing the successful implementation of the four-day week. Overall, there does not seem to be “one-size-fits-all” solution as different models are run in different countries and different companies.
What the example of the European four-day workweek has also shown is that, if trade unions, employers, and the state work towards a common goal, the four-day workweek can be implemented successfully.
Thomas Klikauer teaches at the Sydney Graduate School of Management at Western Sydney University, Australia. He has 830 publications including 12 books. His next book is on the Language of Managerialism; György Széll is a professor emeritus of Social Sciences at the University of Osnabrück/Germany and the Institute of Economic Research at Hitotsubashi University, Japan.