If you were given an extra day off each week, would you work more effectively during the other four days? And how would your boss feel about it?

These are the questions the Scottish Government is hoping to answer soon, as it prepares to run a limited trial of a four-day working week, prompted by growing interest in flexible working practices.

Giving people an extra day off could not only improve workers’ wellbeing but also sustain better jobs, the government there believes.

Could such a scheme work in Wales? The National spoke with some of the people who are calling for a four-day working week here.

When Mark Hooper was running remote working company Indycube, he gave all his employees the option of working a four-day week. Some chose to reduce their hours on a daily basis, leaving early so they could pick up their children from school. Others said they would prefer to always take Fridays off.

“It suited people’s circumstances - the reasons I set it up was because I thought that there was clear evidence people could be more productive by not having to worry about other things in their work-life when they should be working, and vice versa,” he said.

Mark, who works for the 4 Day Working Week campaign in Wales, added: “And at the time, although this wasn’t a scientific method, I’d say people were more productive working less hours.”

From an employer’s point of view, giving people more free time to spend on non-work-related tasks meant they were less likely to get sidetracked while they were on company time.

For workers themselves, a central argument for a four-day working week comes down to health and wellbeing. In Scotland, research published this week shows 80 per cent of people believed cutting their number of days at work – with no loss of pay – would have a “positive effect on their wellbeing”.

“Moving workers to a four-day week, without loss of pay, would bring a wide range of benefits,” Roz Foyer, Scottish Trades Union Congress general secretary, said. “If Scotland is serious about creating a wellbeing economy, then a four-day week is a key way to make progress towards it.”

Back in Wales, Mark said from his own experience the move to four days opened new possibilities for his staff - one even completed and published a collection of poetry after having extra time to work on it.

A four-day working week was trialled in Iceland recently, covering around one per cent of the nation’s 250,000 workers who typically cut their hours from 40 to 36 each week.

Hailed by researchers there as an “overwhelming success”, the trials found that worker productivity was either unaffected or improved in the majority of workplaces taking part.

According to reports, the success of the trial is going to have permanent results in Iceland, where trade unions are renegotiating working patterns so that the bulk of people there have the right to work less for the same amount of pay.

For such radical changes to take place here, the decision would rest with the UK Government. At the last general election, in 2019, Labour - which went on to lose to the Conservatives - pledged to bring in a four-day working week within 10 years.

Senedd member Jack Sargeant believes Wales shouldn’t wait around for Westminster, and “we absolutely should push ahead with our own pilots”.

“The Labour movement has delivered many bold changes throughout its history including the weekend and paid holidays, we have done this by campaigning hard and convincing people, this is what I am trying to do with a four-day week,” he said. “There is a lot of work to be done but we must be confident and bold and if we are we can achieve change across the UK. A trial in Wales could help us make that argument and I want us to take that step.”

The Scottish pilot is “in the early stages” of being designed, and will be funded with £10m, a spokesperson for the government there said. Ministers will use the results “to develop a better understanding of the implications of a broader shift to a shorter working week across the economy”.

While Sargeant hopes to drum up support here, the Welsh Government is currently prioritising another pilot scheme: that of universal basic income. Both the governments in Scotland and in Wales are facing similar criticism of their planned trials, too, that their scope is not wide enough.

Whereas in Wales a proposed UBI trial will be limited to care-leavers, in Scotland campaigners say the four-day working week pilot must look beyond office-based jobs and include lower-paid workers.

“Any successful transition post-Covid-19 must include all kinds of workplaces, and all types of work. The full-time, nine-to-five office job is not how many people across Scotland work – and shorter working time trials need to reflect that reality,” said Rachel Statham, senior research fellow at IPPR Scotland.

“So we must examine what shorter working time looks like from the perspective of shift workers, those working excessive hours to make ends meet, or those who currently have fewer hours than they would like to have.”

But while campaigners praise the expected benefits of a shorter working week, there remain questions over productivity - realistically, will every employee work more efficiently if they are given fewer hours, or will some underperform regardless of the number of days they go to work?

For Mark, who trialled the four-day week with his own staff, the responsibility for motivating workers belongs to management, not government, and making people work longer hours will do little to foster loyalty or happiness in the workplace. Cutting down our working hours would instead be a natural next step in improving workers’ rights and conditions, he argues.

“There’s nothing that’s sacrosanct in our living conditions that says we have to work five days and eight hours a day for those five days,” he said. “At the turn of the last century, we would have gone to work as 13-year-olds down the pits. Education wasn’t guaranteed and we’ve moved on from those, which were six or seven-day-a-week jobs. This is nothing set in stone - it has just become the norm.”

Outside factors may also play a part in shaping the conversation around our future working patterns. Coronavirus forced many people to work from home, and the Welsh Government’s long-term ambition is for 30 per cent flexible working in the years ahead.

Sargeant believes this will benefit the community generally, not just workers.

“I’ve been very interested in the public response to the coronavirus and how at the beginning of the pandemic, people sought to volunteer and help their neighbours,” he said. “This can make a real difference to our lives, those around us and our communities. A four-day working week could really enable people to take this further.”  

And with fewer trips to and from work, there is also an environmental case for a four-day working week.

“If we do this commuting nonsense five days a week, to take 20 per cent out of our commuting time for environmental reasons would be a really good benefit,” Mark said. “If Wales went from a five-day working week to a four-day week tomorrow, we would cut 20 per cent of our commuter emissions immediately.”

The Welsh Government said it would be keen to learn about the

success of pilots elsewhere, but the decision on working hours ultimately rested with Westminster.

“The Welsh Government is open to examining policies around flexible working, fair work and improving people’s work-life balance, as well as those which might have employment and productivity dimensions,” a spokesperson said.

“Welsh Government officials have met with the 4 Day Week Campaign organisation to hear more about how the approach might work in the context of Wales’ economy. Discussion has also taken place with the Scottish Government about its planned pilot. We are also examining pilots and evidence from other countries.”

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