The phrase “work-life balance” emerged around the 1970s and 80s, but workers’ struggle for shorter working hours dates back centuries and continues today. Manufacturing laws in the 19th century (e.g., Cotton Mills and Factories Act) restricted the working hours of women and children. Robert Owen coined the idea of dividing the day into three equal parts, eight hours of work, recreation and rest in 1817. That led Henry Ford to introduce the ‘9-to-5’ work day in the 1920s. Ford’s discovery that productivity increased under the 40-hour week is now central to the four-day week, as many trials report similar findings on productivity, on top of improvements to wellbeing.
Work-life balance has taken on renewed meaning in the aftermath of the pandemic. As most of us were forced to work from home in difficult circumstances, an unforeseen and welcome upside emerged – working from home improved our work-life balance. Circumstances vary, but free from the commute and travel, many found they were less stressed, saving money and getting back hours per day that could be committed to family, their passions and yes, work.
Most employers recognised this and have embraced remote, or hybrid working, while others have stated their intention for a full return to the office. I am not going to argue a one-sided case, there are advantages to office working and many prefer it. I can’t help feeling however, that ‘the cat is out of the bag’ and many do not want to ‘return to normal’. It is, of course, an employer’s prerogative to set the agenda on return to work and, if forced, people will acquiesce to the demand. But in a competitive market for talent, good people may leave and deplete the quality of the workforce, one of the few remaining sources of competitive advantage in the modern economy. Ultimately, market forces will decide, just as they did in 1920.
Will we see a four-day week? I believe we will as the market drives demand and behaviour. Listening to the panel debate, I analogised tradition kitchen scales where you balance the ingredients vs. weights. If you support a five-day week, then salary, a good working environment, culture and your employee experience will be weighty on one side of the equation, but a four-day week will be massively compelling if placed on the other. Atom Bank moved to a four-day week and have stated it has led to a spike in applications. It will ultimately depend on whether the market reaches a tipping point. If it does, mass adoption will be unavoidable to attract and retain talent.
Technology, as ever, is a key driver. The job market is competitive overall, but particularly so for technology talent (developers, data scientists etc.), most of whom are sector agnostic and not tied to financial services. The proof that remote working is viable, facilitated by technology, opens a truly global marketplace for talent. If you remain office-based, you will be recruiting from a finite catchment area in double-digit mile terms.
Equally, the automation of human effort is about to go exponential. We have had centuries of steam, electricity, and computing removing human effort, however artificial intelligence and automation will be game changing. Productivity will be maintained, or even increased with an ever-decreasing requirement for human involvement.
This is not to say I would welcome a fixed four-day week by legislation, where Thursday becomes the new Friday. The market must drive this too, and under our service economy that requires instant gratification, it is difficult to foresee how a fixed day would work. A four-day week will be more difficult for some workplaces but as many of the trials have shown, it is feasible to develop a flexible workforce that can adopt a four-day week while maintaining a full service.