Automation and the four-day week

Automation anxiety would have you believe that robots are taking our jobs. If that’s the case, doesn’t that mean we should need to work less? The rise in the concept of a four-day week suggests that many people think so.

Business process automation and similar technologies are settling into the workplace, devouring the routine tasks that once ate away at employee time. It stands to reason, then, that with the right technological infrastructure, the four-day week is within our reach.

But does that mean that we should achieve it? Transitioning to a four-day week doesn’t come without a few caveats to consider.

Here, we explore the arguments surrounding the four-day week.

The four-day week

Before anything else, it’s worth clarifying what is meant by a ‘four-day week’. Specifically, it’s not stuffing our current 40-hour weeks into four days instead of five. Rather, it’s cutting a day’s worth of hours off our work week, without reducing pay.

The idea of a four-day week isn’t a new one. But as automation and AI abilities evolve, the idea has started to gain traction in recent years. 63% of Britons support the four-day week, according to YouGov. After all, it makes sense that if machines are starting to handle more of our tasks, they can liberate us from some of our work.

And now we’ve seen the suggestion that the post-COVID-19 climate might be the time to make the shift to a four-day week. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said that a four-day week could help the country save its economy following the pandemic.

So, it’s clear that the four-day week is a topic that’s captured the attention of many.

The argument for the four-day week

There was a time when a five-day week was a revolutionary idea. It was introduced by Henry Ford in the 1920s when 48-hour weeks was the norm. Now, as automation cuts through more rote tasks, it’s seemingly possible to drop to a four-day week.

And Henry Ford’s reasoning applies again. Namely, human productivity improves with longer weekends. And this assertion is one that so far has been backed up by those trialling a four-day week. Microsoft found that implementing a four-day system led to a productivity increase of 40%. A company in New Zealand claimed a 20% boost to productivity.

Other benefits to the four-day week include mental health benefits and improved quality of life for employees. They have more time to get personal chores done, more time to spend with their family, pursuing passions and so on. In other words, it makes for a better work-life balance. (Indeed, work-life balance scores in the aforementioned New Zealand study increased by 24%.)

Plus, fewer days spent in the office means the office isn’t using as much electricity or other office resources, saving money. (And helping the climate.)

But as with anything in life, where there are benefits, there are risks.

Technology concerns

The first caveat to consider before introducing the four-day week is the risk of not having the needed technology. For the four-day week to work, it must be introduced alongside the technology that enables it.

There is, unfortunately, a risk that organisations could cut corners, demanding their employees complete the same amount of work in fewer hours, without investing in the critical tech tools they need. Rather than reduce workplace stress, this would make the issues worse. It would completely offset the improved wellbeing that the four-day week is supposed to create.

In other words, the four-day week needs widespread adoption of automation and other technologies. Herein lies the need for legislative measures. We need rules that ensure organisations provide the technological support needed to succeed in a four-day environment.

Leading to another issue

Introducing the legislation to ensure that employees get the support they need is another challenge to consider.

Each business is different. There are thousands of different software solutions, which all claim to ease employee strain, reduce the rote, cut resource costs, and so on. How, then, can anyone create universal policies and best practices? There isn’t a one size fits all when it comes to business solutions.

It is a concern that there would be no cohesive laws in place to safeguard employees from unfair expectations. If a four-day week becomes the norm, how can we ensure employees aren’t penalised for it?

A loss of productivity?

There is also the concern that if the rest of the world did not follow suit, developing countries could overtake domestic productivity. They too can make use of the boost to productivity and efficiency that automation offers, but are applying it to an extra day.

This lag as other countries race ahead could then cause living standards for those in four-day week adopting countries to fall.

Of course, this is purely speculative. And we’re speaking in extremely broad strokes. But this notion of a loss of productivity and ensuing hit to living standards is commonly used by those against a four-day week.

If not the four-day week, then what?

The four-day week is undoubtedly a catchy headline. But it could be argued that the real opportunity for technology to improve our working lives comes with new and innovative roles. Particularly if the measures we need are not yet in place to support a four-day week.

We are often urged to work smarter, not harder. Office automation and artificial intelligence are giving us a helping hand in doing that. While they handle monotonous chores, employees can dedicate their time to more creative, deep work.

This, then, is where technological advances can add value right now. If we can’t (yet) have the benefit of the extra time off, technology can make the time we spend at work more meaningful. Perhaps later down the line, that time will swap from five days to four.

The benefits of automation

The path to the four-day week isn’t as black and white as automation making it possible, and businesses adopting it. There are benefits and risks involved. The technology is there, but we might not yet have the values and rules in place to safely transition to a four-day week.

It’s important that the world is at a stage of automation adoption where we’re ready to introduce such a radical change to working lives.

For now, though, automation technology presents benefits to the workplace outside of enabling more time off.

Useful links

Productivity paradox: why more output isn’t always a good thing

Deep work and automation

Cultural lag and automation