Updated: Feb 17
Why is it me that has to be bitter and twisted? The internet is sardine packed with those who are permanently “super excited” and waggy-tailed about something or other. Or they are “massively honoured” and “extra delighted” to be asked to sit on an exercise spike, or take the bins out. Have you noticed how one aroused adjective is never enough. Meh.
Into this Tiggerverse some grumpiness must flow, and I seem to reify this turgid and rocky little tributary. So where better to start than by dousing the simply super idea of the four-day week?
The four-day week
You may think that as somebody who has railed against unnecessarily long working hours, I would be super excit…yes, that, about this new initiative. Well, OK, part of me is. However, we work long hours in the UK, and we work them badly. And this is the rub.
*Britain and France earn nearly identical GDP per capita. But our continental sparring partners achieve theirs with a shorter working week and much more ‘oli-day. In relative terms, what we take all week to complete, the effective French knock off by Thursday afternoon. They achieve the same results in three quarters of the time. France has been living our four-day week (minus a bit) for ages.
Meanwhile tthe Americans who work 50% longer than the French with their dedication to tasks and abstemious vacations, earn 50% more. There’s a presbyterian work ethic for you. We do badly by comparison to both, with the US earning 50% more than the UK for just 12.5% extra work. And similarly we have absolutely no grounds to be beastly to the Germans or anybody else. Britain's pretty rubbish (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021; Office of National Statistics, 2021).
So condensing our inefficiencies into four laconic French days might be a great thing, but given our current methodologies, it has the smack of flatlining about it and a tumbling down the international economic league tables to put us on a rough par with The Pound Shop.
While a four-day week apparently reduced stress for 60% of the workforce at South Cambridgeshire District Council – wouldn’t it be interesting to ask the other 40% why lopping a fifth off their working week, while maintaining salaries, didn’t reduce stress – we need to note that stress reduction stress is not the same thing as a productivity increase (see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-cambridgeshire-64453463).
And here, South Cambridgeshire DC I offer you a hundred whole British pounds. They are yours if you really know how to measure productivity, but I bet you don’t (hint: Without objective measurement, it is as pointless asking somebody how productive they are, as asking a swimmer in arm bands how fast they swam their two widths).
However, I do know how to measure productivity. I’ve been doing it for years. And you are going to have to go some to even maintain existing performance in a four-day week. Across those four working days you will have to improve productivity by 25% just to stand still. How? What new methodologies have you employed? Knocking 20% off the week just won’t do it. Unless you are outsourcing all your work to the other side of The Channel?
All fly no ointment
You see, the one major problem with British performance is the British manager. Most British managers have a heart of custard, a soul of ice, the independence of thought of a hesitant sheep and the IQ of a stranded jellyfish. Not the people themselves, you understand, they can be of the noblest stripe. Kind, helpful good in a crisis, sharp and durable as a diamond, in fact just the type to have beside you in a trench.
It is just that they undergo some kind of transformation whenever they put on the worsted and cotton of office yakka. It must be this which forces the good brain to rush out through the ears, as the mind of a language mangling idiot to slips in behind the steering wheel. These are the ego-centric creatures who have evolved to deep dive into cross pollinated ideas and lay the foundations for robust, blue-sky ideation. Everything is mission critical, so they must sharpen the point of their pencils to keep respective shows on the road, occasionally touching base offline to discuss their push and pull strategies. …God help us!
Nobody talks like that when choosing what to watch telly, or when they are down the pub at the end of a long day, or as they romance their partners.
“Darling, when did you last do something for the first time?”
“Darling, we should take an holistic view and operationalize our onboarding process.”
“Oh Pumpkin, can I hitch hike on the back of that comment?”
“Oh Pumpkin, sweetest, for too long we have been technology agnostic about onboarding.”
“I think I have found some secret sauce to, er, run up your flagpole, Pumpkin.”
“Have you been having a thought shower, Darling.”
“Yes Pumpkin, the one just off the strategic staircase.”
“Oh give me your key takeaway, Darling.”
“We need to develop our dynamic symbiotic engagement, Pumpkin.”
“You don’t mean circling the wagons with Sylvia and Brian from Accounts, Darling?”
“No Pumpkin, that isn’t an idea I want frying in my think wok.”
“What is it then Darling, let’s decompose this herd of cats to a lower level of granulation."
“I need leverage Pumpkin, I want us to be robust.
“I hear what you are saying Darling, let’s get down in the weeds.”
“Oh yes Pumpkin, reach out and lay the foundations”
“I want your low hanging fruit, Darling.”
“Oh God, Pumpkin, bucketize this, give me the sizzle as well as the sausage.”
Now this isn’t to say that a French, American or whomever manager is particularly brilliant either. They’re just don’t seem to be quite as inept as their British counterpart, or maybe in the case of the French, Germans etc., they just aren’t allowed to be. 70% of UK workers leave their jobs, not for better pay, or promotion, or a shorter commute, but because of some relationship problem with a manager.
Too many managers want to star. They want to be the ones to make things work, standing, arms outstretched, in the limelight, semaphoring their modesty while humble bragging and virtue signalling, at volume 11, to anybody within range.
“I don’t know how it happened, I was only being my usual shy, head down, conscientious self. You know unostentatiously working later than anybody else, sitting just outside the C-Suite’s offices because I like that plastic seat that saves the company money. It's funny, but all the Directors have to walk past that chair on their way home while I am still at my computer. I don’t know how it is but they seemed to have noticed me"
Yet here is the rub. Managers are so bad, that if they all stayed in bed rather than at the office, if they played X-Box and drew Gantt charts on their duvets for a change, workplace performances would increase hugely and we would be well on the way to a four day week. The evidence is overwhelming that laissez-faire, or absentee managers are better than we have now. That is worth a thought, isn’t it?
Now some people will be wearing the office uniform as they read this. This limits their concentration span to five minutes as they’ll have left their intelligence on the bedside cabinet after they dressed. So we are right on the time limit here. They may also have to rush off to a standing meeting (why have a good meeting when you can have a quick one?), before gushing about their pride, excitement and general honour at being asked to press the buttons in the lift. We don’t want over-tired cross patches running our blue chips. Part two will follow soon.
Thanks for reading. This is tongue in cheek of course, but not all that much. Like everything we do, this article is based on science. Right now, management is a serious problem, many companies are employing useless and - worse - toxic ideas. Yet management could, and should, be a massive help. More soon, C.
Bureau of labor statsitics (2022) What Is the Average Number of Work Hours Per Week, 2021?
retrieved from (16th February 2023) from https://www.thebalancemoney.com/what-is-the-average-hours-per-week-worked-in-the-us-2060631#:~:text=According%20to%20the%20most%20recent%20data%20%28May%202019%29%2C,ethnicity%20location%2C%20type%20of%20job%2C%20and%20education%20level.
Knight, C.P., & Haslam, S.A. (2010). The relative merits of lean, enriched, and empowered Offices: An experimental examination of the impact of workspace management, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 16, 158 – 172.
Knight, CP (2021) The end of the affair, the return to offices and the route to happiness: Employment lessons from the pandemic. London, Client report
Nieuwenhuis, M, Knight, C.P., Postmes, T., & Haslam, S.A. (2014). The relative benefits of green versus lean office space: Three field experiments. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. Vol 20, 199-21
Office of National Statistics (2023) Average actual weekly hours of work for full-time workers, 2021. Retrieved 15th February from https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/earningsandworkinghours/timeseries/ybuy/lms