People@Work

The four-day debate: Fantasy or feasible?

KAMAL KARANTH | Updated on November 20, 2019 Published on November 20, 2019

Will our personal and professional productivity increase if we migrate to a four-day work week?

I felt a sense of deja vu when I heard of Microsoft’s four-day work-week pilot in Japan. A few years ago, my experiment with a four-day work-week meant only for top performers in the company was more than successful. But, alas! We weren’t gutsy enough to continue it for longer!

Microsoft had good reasons to test a four-day work-week in Japan where Karoshi, or death by overwork, is often talked about. But to stretch that one-month trial run’s results and say it is here to stay is taking it too far.

In our country, where almost 90 per cent of the workforce is informal and works for proprietary-owned companies, a four-day work-week seems more like a fantasy.

Knowledge-worker world

People who work for the information technology industry or employees who work in the corporate offices of large enterprises are already privileged in many ways. Flexible working hours, work from home, gym, creche & cafeteria-like benefits have been in place for a while. Organisations claim it has allowed them to retain critical talent due to these benefits.

Yes, employees have been happy to flaunt these perks, and employers have gone on to win awards with these benefits.

But we are yet to see any tangible data around productivity increase due to these flexibilities. However, the four-day work-week pilot we ran a few years ago in my former outfit had showed continuity of performance by top performers. If a four-day work-week has to find its way to India, the knowledge- worker community might be the first to experience it. Not surprisingly, the few people in the field I asked said they welcomed it.

Aye aye Captain

The millennials I spoke to were overwhelmingly in favour of the idea too. They felt that it would also lead to more quantifiable goals, bring structured orientation, and ensure completion towards work responsibilities.

My millennial colleague is convinced that a three-day weekend is very much needed. She said, “In this era, where anxiety, stress and depression are at maximum risk, it would be an added advantage to rejuvenate with hobbies, travel & learning new things. More connectivity with family & friends will lead to more happiness and fulfilment at a personal level, which will spill to work,” she concluded with a smile.

The naysayers

As a country, we are already low on productivity. Will a four-day week worsen our output? Our cities have a clogged infrastructure. If a compressed work-week becomes real, will it accentuate the commute challenges by having almost everybody on the road those four days? Another possibility is that we may end up pushing employees to binge-work for four days, which may necessitate a spa visit during the long weekend. I spoke to the CHRO of a large hedge fund; she said, “a four-day work-week will make those four days longer, life is all about balance. If we balance the five days, we won’t need the four-day week.” Going by our productivity standards, should we focus on creating a more conducive environment for five days, instead?

The enterprises challenge

The HR Head of an engineering R&D firm felt that a four-day work-week might increase headcount/cost needed to deliver, especially for teams who have to provide 24/7 services, such as technical support, back-end operations, etc. Sales roles anyhow will have to accommodate customer requests, making it tricky for them to adopt. He warned that one more issue that would crop up would be the holiday hangover. In the current five- day week, his managers complain that on Mondays the first half is spent beating weekend inertia and on Fridays the second half is lightened due to weekend mood!

If you count senior executives, who are weekly travelling back and forth to their work city from their home town, that adds more people to the three-day work-week. A three-day weekend would end up becoming a three-day work-week. He opined that a four-day week could be piloted as a perk to performing employees rather than dishing it out to everyone.

The infrastructure reality

One aspect that needs closer scrutiny is that people in cities are travelling almost 2-4 hours per day for work. This travel will only increase with the growth of cities and our services economy. The city commute is already complicated as our public transportation system has not kept pace with the Industry. Many organisations are already facing the challenge of productivity, with workers having a long commute. Sooner or later, organisations that have sophisticated technology will realise that they can enhance productivity either through remote work or may be via a four-day office work-week.

The 5th day

Early this year Kronos published a study on Indian workers’ preferences. Overwhelmingly, Indians said they would like to work five days and if offered a four-day week they would prefer to spend that time to learn a new skill. One L&D head told me that the fifth day should be a day dedicated exclusively for learning, upskilling, trying new ideas. Let employees choose what they want. That one day in a week, employees should be cut off from their regular work.

The biggest impediment to learning and growth is dedicated time, tools, sponsorship. By freeing up the Friday for skilling, organisations can reduce the craving for a four-day week and develop the much desired skilled workforce by utilising their fifth day more meaningfully.

Having taken close to two decades to settle down to a five day week from six, are we now more prepared for a four-day week change? Well, for starters, TGIT doesn’t sound as cool as TGIF!

 

 

Kamal Karanth is co-founder of Xpheno, a specialist talents solutions company

Published on November 20, 2019
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