The four-day work week is a success, but are customers ready for it?
A long-awaited report published this week supported what we have been saying for a while – the four-day week is a success. In a study of 61 companies, employees raved about work-life balance and employers were generally positive about the effects on bottom lines, notwithstanding reduction in working hours. Many commented that reducing working hours saw an improvement in productivity, something the UK has been struggling with for a while.
But how far can we generalise from this study? And importantly, while the report spent a lot of time reporting how happy employers and employees were with the four-day week, much less attention was given to customers. How will customers feel about four?
Diving a bit deeper
The distribution of companies in the study is interesting – about one third were in “knowledge” based sectors of marketing, advertising and professional services, and the remainder were dominated by sectors (and respondents) which typically do not deal directly with end-customers.
Issues of work scheduling can look quite different where work is not so much creatively developed over time, but has to meet customers’ daily expectations for service availability. For example, the bus needs to get us to work at a specific time, and we like the store to stay open into the evening. Also, in many direct customer facing jobs, the prospect of big productivity improvements to make up for one day less working may be unrealistic. A taxi cannot be driven 20% faster and the hairdresser will not be able to cut hair in 20% less time. This is not to deny scope for productivity improvements in direct customer facing roles – they are often just hard to achieve.
Two-tiered labour force
A consequence of the four-day work week may be growing inequality in the labour force. ONS data from 2022 shows the evening and night-time economy now accounts for about a quarter of UK employment, dominated by hospitality and catering sectors, and by low paid roles, covered especially by young workers and ethnic minorities. Evening and night-time working is particularly high in London. A picture emerges of a leisure economy – typically worked by staff on low wages during antisocial hours - working to satisfy the needs of wealthy consumers who can take part in the attractions of the leisure economy.
The services sector has a long record of adapting working policies to customers’ preferences. For example, the development of flexible zero-hour contracts has allowed peaks in demand to be satisfied without the expense of paying staff during the troughs.
With a four-day work week, it is in principle possible to cater for this volatility in customer demand, but with two important caveats. First, that working hours will need to be decided in line with the preferences of the customer. These might be quite opposite to what employees want – with Mondays and Fridays becoming popular days off for four-day working, will another group of service sector employees be prepared to cater for these people when they hit the shops and restaurants on their day off?
Second, customers would need to accept rising costs of labour-intensive services where hourly wage rates are effectively increased by 20%. Some personal services – like a haircut or food delivery - may become a luxury to be enjoyed by groups benefiting from the four-day work week. Meanwhile, an underclass would work harder, only to afford automated versions of these services. A fifth day of leisure may be an unrealistic dream for customer-facing service workers who have become accustomed to working in the “gig” economy – the fifth day may just provide an opportunity to fit in another job, to earn enough to take part more fully in the market economy.
But look to the future, and this may be just the point in time historians point to as the spark that lit the match for the development of robot restaurant waiters and self-driving taxis….