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7 Reasons the Five-Day Workweek Needs to Be Scrapped

Greg de la Cruz works at NCR Corp's R&D center in the Philippines. He is interested in economic history and current world financial affairs.

Workers at a NASA office go about their business in the 1950s, a period where working 5–6 days a week was commonplace.

Workers at a NASA office go about their business in the 1950s, a period where working 5–6 days a week was commonplace.

Is a Four-Day Workweek Better for Both Workers and Businesses?

The benefits of a four-day workweek are obvious, as far as workers are concerned. The extra weekend day, whether it’s on a Monday or a Friday, will give workers more time to be with their family or to pursue other endeavors that don’t have to relate to work. And that third rest day should be what the name suggests—a day of rest. And it may not mean “rest” in the literal sense; it could simply mean a break from the monotony of one’s day job.

Aside from having more free time, workers will also have more financial flexibility, as there would be no need for work-related spending on that fifth day—expenses such as commute, meals, coffee, etc.

For businesses, a four-day workweek could also mean less spending on operational and administrative costs (although not for all types of businesses, especially those that operate 5–7 days a week). While the four-day workweek will correspondingly increase hiring and staffing costs if the unworked hours need to be filled in by additional workers, much evidence points to both an increase in worker productivity, happiness, and improvement in worker retention. Overworked and unhappy workers tend to leave their jobs, as labor data and case studies overwhelmingly support.

Needless to say, there are tradeoffs for both employees and employers when it comes to implementing the four-day workweek. Case studies done in Iceland, Sweden, Germany, and many other countries expose beneficial outcomes, but not mentioned enough are the not-so-great results (which tend to get glossed over).

A shorter workweek may simply mean a compressed one, leading to longer hours and a heavier daily workload. And some industries, or even some business units within an organization, might find it impossible to implement—leading to inequality in working conditions and unrest among groups of workers.

That said, no work style is perfect. There are still many reasons why the classic five-day workweek should forever be abandoned.

7 Reasons the Five-Day Workweek Should Be Eliminated

The five-day workweek is a relic of Fordism, a manufacturing technology established by Henry Ford as early as the 1900s and coined by Antonio Gramsci in his 1934 essay “Americanism and Fordism.” The 3rd major principle of Fordism was that “Workers are paid higher living wages so that they can afford to purchase the products they make,” a principle not directly related to increasing output. By giving workers an extra day off (6–7 workdays was the norm), Henry Ford wanted to give his workers more time to spend the money they earned.

Likewise, businesses should now understand that not every change in workstyle is directly tied to an increase in output, productivity, revenue, or even bottom line. While it’s difficult to motivate businesses otherwise, changes in the manner, amount, duration, and timing of work should respond to the times. Here are 7 reasons why the five-day workweek just doesn’t work anymore.

1. More time at work comes at the cost of burnout, overwork, presenteeism, and poor employee retention.

I’ve written about burnout, overwork, and workaholism before—and each of these is directly caused by long work hours. A five-day workweek tends to spread the work out, because technological innovations have enabled the modern worker to get more things done in less time. According to Joni Sweet in a 2020 article, the United States raised its labor productivity by 299% from 1950 to 2018.

Let that sink in—the average worker today is three times more productive than the average worker from 70 years ago.

And yet, why have work hours remained the same, or in fact, even increased? China’s 9-9-6 (9 am-9 pm, six days a week) workstyle in its tech industry just shows how, despite the new technology and labor-saving devices that exist today, workers are driven to work even more.

Presenteeism, more commonly known as “working while sick” is another pressing workplace issue. To appease bosses and impress colleagues, people report to work even if they’re not physically or mentally well.

All these adverse effects on the worker ultimately lead to poor worker retention—leading to business interruptions, more hiring costs, and undesirable work cultures.

2. Multiple studies and examples point to the productivity boost of a shortened workweek.

The verdict has predominantly swayed in favor of shortened workweeks, as case studies from Iceland, Finland, Germany, Sweden, New Zealand, and other places point to. These are mainly Western countries whose work conditions and pay are already better than most countries.

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But guess which Western country isn’t famous for trying out shorter workweeks? The United Kingdom.

On average, a full-time employee in the U.K. works 36.3 hours a week, which is ahead of most Western countries such as Germany, France, Spain, Finland, and Sweden. And yet, several statistics point to German workers being more productive than workers from the U.K.

A 2017 article by Ben Chapman even said that “the U.K.’s productivity is so poor that the average German worker could go home early on Thursday afternoon and still have produced as much as the average Brit who toiled all the way through Friday.”

As a separate example, in 2019, Microsoft Japan implemented a 4-day workweek and saw an improvement in workers’ productivity by 40%. Workers from Asian countries are notoriously known and proven to be working longer hours than those in Europe and the Americas—maybe this example from a workaholic country like Japan would make other Asian businesses rethink work hours?

3. Longer workweeks exacerbate the climate crisis.

It may initially be bad for property developers and commercial real estate owners when they suddenly don’t have as much foot traffic as they used to on their high-rise buildings and business parks, but they should eventually be able to adapt their maintenance costs to adjust to reduced workdays.

Longer workweeks exacerbate the ongoing global climate crisis through increased utilization of transportation, indoor cooling and lighting, and the corresponding increase in basic consumption.

Flexible working arrangements also mean that operators of commercial real estate and transportation are forced to be more efficient and incorporate flexibility into their designs and operations. “Green” buildings or those LEED-certified and such, enable building administrators to save on cooling and lighting costs by incorporating sustainability on their design and operations.

4. Businesses that adopt R.O.W.E. have made it work.

First of all, what in the world is R.O.W.E.?

ROWE stands for Results Only Work Environment, and it’s a HR management strategy wherein employees are paid for their results or output, rather than working time.

Rather than shortening the workweek, why not just give workers reasonable deadlines, where they’re forced to be more efficient—at the same time allowing them to pace themselves should they need to take time off for personal reasons?

Jennifer Parris, writing for FlexJobs, lists 21 companies adopting ROWE:

  • Beutler Ink
  • Blossom
  • Collage.com
  • DataStax
  • GitHub
  • Groove
  • LovetoKnow
  • Lullabot
  • MomsRising.org
  • Scribendi
  • Seeq
  • Site5
  • StickerMule
  • Stride, Inc.
  • Summit CPA Group
  • TeamSnap
  • Timely
  • Toggl
  • Toptal
  • Trello
  • Workfrom

If these 21 companies found a way to make ROWE work (or even thrive because of it) then I see no reason why more companies wouldn’t give it a shot.

“Another great aspect of results only work environments,” Jennifer says, “is that goals are established and defined. Since this is the very foundation of measurement, setting goals is one of the most important processes of the work strategy.”

5. Employment will increase while stimulating consumer spending.

Governments love it when employment increases, as “added jobs” and “high employment rate” are overused indicators of how well an administration performs since more employment usually means a good economy. Another indicator would be consumer spending—governments love it when money moves around and exchanges hands, because where money goes, taxes follow.

Hitting two birds with one stone, both higher employment and higher spending can be achieved by reducing the number of workdays, which usually has the effect of creating more jobs while giving people more time to spend their wages.

It’s an upfront cost to businesses when their hand is forced, and they’re suddenly required to fill those vacant hours by hiring more people. That said, it won’t be the first time they’ll have to adjust to a novel government requirement. There was a time when overtime premiums didn’t exist, and that wasn’t even a hundred years ago. There was also a time when minimum wage was considered wishful thinking—that too wasn’t commonplace a hundred years ago. Some businesses will initially feel the shock and suffer, but they will learn to adjust and adapt.

6. Less human labor encourages more labor-saving innovation.

Labor-saving devices are part of the reason workers today are three times more productive than they were 70 years ago. Labor-saving equipment already exists, such as photocopiers, computers, robotic arms, door openers—the list goes on. These inventions were created in order to save humans time, effort, energy, and even willpower—all of which are finite and the levels of which fluctuate throughout the day.

By forcibly lessening human labor, companies will also be forced to introduce both cost-saving and labor-saving innovation. In the case of call centers, IVR, or Interactive Voice Response is a labor-saving innovation that reduces hiring costs. Not all customers may like IVR, especially ones that seem to lead you nowhere—but it does its trick by eliminating the need for human intervention in many situations.

Nevertheless, with the advancement in artificial intelligence, we may anyway be soon heading to less demand in labor whether we like it or not.

7. Because the 7-day and 6-day workweeks of old were also scrapped.

Last, and certainly my favorite of these 7 reasons—the 5-day workweek needs to be scrapped because the 7-day and 6-day workweeks of old were also scrapped.

In the same way that machines, products, services, and jobs change throughout the course of history, so should be the case for outdated systems. The 7-day workweek was scrapped because workers simply broke down physically, and you can easily say that this somewhat contributed to the lower life expectancy in older generations.

The 6-day workweek also fell out of favor, as other companies began to make 5-day workweeks more popular, and labor organizations pushed for the standardization of 8-hour workdays and 40-hour workweeks—placing a premium when work hours exceeded the standard 40.

The labor system, just like any system, should be a living, breathing thing. It doesn’t have to be a fixed, unresponsive, insensitive, set-in-stone construct. Laws, like norms, change through the passage of time. Why have we (or at least most capitalists) been so stuck on the idea that five-day workweeks are the standard way of operating?

The Danger of Being Stuck in Old Ways

As part of my day job the last three years, I’ve been in charge of scrapping obsolete and defective equipment owned by my employer. I’ve seen old, unusable, unredeemable machines and devices on a daily basis. It is therefore not hard for me to come to the conclusion that the five-day workweek is something that needs to be scrapped for being an outdated, out-of-touch, broken, stubborn, and ineffective way of working.

Having said that, I don’t think that there’s a one-size-fits-all solution to replacing it. Instead of removing one entire workday, maybe some businesses could opt to significantly reduce standard working hours? That would likely be more costly for those who need 24x7x3 operations, but it’s worth trying out.

And I’m also not saying that a four-day workweek is the best answer out there—a 3-day workweek, or even a ROWE setup as mentioned above, could be the best answer for some businesses.

The key here is not mandating a set number of days, which some governments—I’m talking to you, Philippines—tend to do; but instead, allow flexibility. True flexibility. Not open-ended flexibility like “you’re free to do whatever you want while working at home, but we’re also free to ask something from you at wee hours.”

Businesses should be empowered to make their own rules on workdays like Ford was during its heyday. There is a danger in being stuck to the old ways of working. Could we have been stuck working seven days a week if not for workers rising up in their time, or if not for industry leaders like Henry Ford?

The five-day workweek had its time, and that was before a global pandemic gave us all time to pause and think about our lives. Let’s not wait for another major catastrophe to come by, as capitalists are itching to bring us all back to that hamster wheel again.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Greg de la Cruz

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