Why Europe prefers the four-day workweek

Why is the four-day workweek growing more popular in Europe? Belgium and Spain have taken steps to encourage this new method of working. Few companies in France have taken this approach.

Why Europe prefers the four-day workweek
Alternate perspectives on one's job, workplace happiness, and increased output. Photo by Chris Benson on Unsplash

He no longer thinks of working any other way. Abdéno Ainséba, CEO of IT Partner, a Lyon-based company specializing in digital services, has implemented a four-day working week since January 2021. Most of the 80 employees moved from a 35- to a 32-hour work week without taking a pay cut. In addition to the traditional weekend, they also have a weekly rest day.

The working day has been extended by half an hour to 8 hours. "It doesn't change the working hours; it's just a shorter lunch break," says the manager. The idea for this new organization was born during the "first lockdown." "The COVID-19 crisis has raised the issue of the workplace and the need to find a new work-life balance."

The health crisis and the reorganization of work that it triggered "created a desire among employees who were used to a five-day working week in offices to better manage their presence in the office and the number of days they spent at work,"  says Marie-Rachel Jacobs, Professor of Strategic Human Resource Management at Emlyon Business School.

According to a study published in May by ADP, a company specializing in human resources, 64% of French workers in all sectors "would like more flexibility in the organization of working time so that it can be reduced to a four-day week." This figure is 4 percentage points higher than in 2019.

Four working days initiatives in Spain and Belgium

Although only 5% of French companies have adopted this system, according to company data, the four-day working week is being introduced on a wider scale in some of our European neighbors. In Spain, the government has launched an experiment with 200 voluntary SMEs to reduce working hours to 32 hours per week spread over four days without any reduction in pay.

At the end of September, the Belgian Parliament voted to allow workers to work full-time for four days instead of five. but without reducing working hours, which range from 38 to 40 hours. According to the Belgian Prime Minister, this is a way to offer employees "more freedom and flexibility to better reconcile their personal and professional lives."

These policy decisions were partly inspired by the positive feedback from the extensive experiments carried out in recent years. In Iceland, working time was reduced to four days for around 2,500 workers or more than 1% of the workforce.

This shorter working week—35 or 36 hours instead of 40 hours—was piloted for four years, from 2015 to 2019, in several public services (administrative cash desks, daycare centers, etc.). According to the study, interviews with participants "show that work-life balance has improved significantly." They say they have more time for leisure, sports, childcare, and housework.

Positive impact on stress and reduction of sick leave

A recent experiment in June, involving 3,300 UK residents in more than 70 companies, also confirmed that work-life balance is improving. According to the results of the survey, which was carried out three months after the trial and involved more than half of the companies concerned, 86% of respondents said they were willing to stay in their organization at the end of the trial period, the BBC reports.

The Icelandic study also pointed to benefits in terms of well-being at work and highlighted a "reduction in stress-related symptoms" among employees who took part in the study compared to those whose working hours remained the same. At IT Partner, Abdéno Ainséba has seen a reduction in sick leave.

The same applies to LDLC, a hardware company that transferred to this organization in January 2021. "They have reduced absenteeism and sick leave, especially in warehouses where the work is physical," says Marie-Rachel Jacobs, who is closely following the experience of this other Lyon company.

"Employees are more rested, so they are more vigilant about safety, and there are fewer accidents at work."

Several studies have even shown that there is a virtuous cycle: less tired and more satisfied workers tend to be more productive. According to an Oxford University researcher who studied the conversion of 5,000 call center employees to a four-day workweek. During the 2018 experiment, the number and quality of calls increased, and sales rose accordingly, reports The Telegraph.

The Icelandic experiment confirms this trend. "Productivity levels have at least remained stable and, in some cases, even increased," the authors of the report said. Despite the reduction in working hours, workers managed to process the same number of cases and complete the same number of tasks as before.

The first results of a second British study, conducted since June, also point to this trend. Over the three months, almost half of the companies surveyed saw their productivity remain the same, a third felt it had "improved slightly," and 15% felt it had "improved".

In France, companies that have reduced working hours can also boast a positive impact on production. In the first half of 2021, the LDLC claimed that turnover had increased by 6% (PDF link) thanks to the "productivity gains" associated with the four-day working week. "Our profitability and turnover have improved," says the IT Partner CEO.

"The four-day working week has real value for our employees; they are more engaged with the company and therefore more productive," he says. But such operational changes require an adjustment period. "We experienced chaos, but we gradually sorted ourselves out," says Abdéno Ainséba.

Consider reorganizing your workplace

To increase efficiency, IT Partner meetings have become shorter, and the planning process has been completely redesigned. To be able to meet customer needs throughout the week, the rest day is different for each employee. Everyone is given a "day off" from Tuesday to Friday according to a calendar that is reviewed every quarter.

"Moving to a four-day work week needs very consistent management engineering to make sure work doesn't stop."

That's why not all companies can dare to carry out such organizational upheavals. "A company has to have a certain maturity, and customers have to be able to follow experiments," says the IT partner manager.

"Today, it's still a risky bet," he says. Moreover, not all employees can take advantage of this flexibility. "Entire sectors of activity, such as industry or hospitals, no longer operate on the classic five-day working week model," says Marie-Rachel Jacobs.

For managers, implementing a four-day working week can be difficult. "Telling a manager that what he cannot do in five days he will do in four does not seem like a good solution," warns a specialist. "If the workload is not reduced, it is quite risky from a health point of view." "Employees risk exhaustion," Benoît Seret, vice president of the National Association of Human Resources Development Workers, writes in Les Echos.

Servais believes that it is more appropriate to judge the number of days worked over six months or a year. "We can think about different labor organizations, but it is important to act on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the specificities of sectors and companies, through collective bargaining rather than by law," Andrea Garnero, an OECD labor market specialist, told AFP. "The organization of the optimal week is nowhere written down," he said.

Source: Franceinfo