Frances O’Grady: Should employers encourage a four-day week to increase productivity?

Frances O’Grady

It is the Trades Union Congress’ (TUC) 150th anniversary, and we have marked the occasion by publishing a report, in September 2018, on the future of work.

The government estimates that new technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics could boost UK gross domestic product (GDP) by at least £200 billion in the next decade alone, according to a [Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS)] Response to Science and Technology Select Committee questions document, published in September 2016. Working people must share in the benefits of that growth.

The best way to share productivity gains created by new technologies with working people is through higher pay and shorter working hours.

One idea we have looked at is a four-day working week, without loss of pay. This may be hard to introduce across the economy overnight, but we believe it is a realistic goal for the 21st century.

As expected, a few people unfamiliar with the forecast for productivity gains from new tech have ridiculed the idea, saying it would damage businesses and the economy.

But we in the trade union movement know our history. Previous generations of trade unionists fought for shorter hours, and they were met with ridicule in their day. Over time, they prevailed. A shorter working day and a two-day weekend became the norm, and the economy kept on growing.

Some commentators aligned with the interests of bosses and shareholders. They just could not see why working people should share the benefits gained from new tech.

However, there is good news in this space. We can already see some progressive employers moving towards shorter working hours without loss of pay. So perhaps this idea will take hold sooner than we had thought.

Perpetual Guardian, a financial services organisation in New Zealand, found that moving to a four-day week increased productivity. Their employees now work four eight-hour days, but get paid for five.

Some UK firms have tried it successfully, too. The public relations firm Radioactive PR, and IndyCube, which runs co-working spaces, have both had successful trials and have now decided to make a permanent move to a four day week.

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We would love to see other organisations trialling a four-day week without loss of pay. Trade union reps would be happy to help managers with the planning and negotiation with staff.

Frances O’Grady is general secretary at the TUC