Q&A: Labor experts weigh in on four-day work week proposal

The Trades Union Congress (TUC), which represents most trade unions in England and Wales, called for the implementation of a four-day working week by the end of the 21st century at this year’s annual conference in September. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said this can happen if businesses are forced to share profits from new technology and automation with the workforce. WikiTribune asked two labor experts about the TUC’s proposal, and other issues facing the contemporary workforce.

A frequent media commentator and HR Magazine‘s 2014 “Most Influential Thinker in HR,” Cary Cooper is a professor of organizational psychology and health at Manchester University’s Business School. Len Shackleton is a professor of economics at the University of Buckingham, and an editorial and research fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs. Although their answers are presented together, Cooper and Shackleton were interviewed separately. 

From left to right: Prof Cary Cooper and Prof Len Shackleton (Author - Harry Ridgewell/WikiTribune; Copyright - CC BY SA 4.0)
L to R: Cary Cooper and Len Shackleton (Author – Harry Ridgewell/WikiTribune; Copyright – CC BY SA 4.0)

WikiTribune: The TUC has called for the implementation of a four-day work week. Is this something you support?

Cooper: If you take a look at the experiment done by the Swedish government in Gothenburg … they found the 30-hour week [employees] were more job satisfied, had less sickness absent days and were more productive. … We [UK] have the longest working hours in Europe of any country … and our productivity per capita is one of the lowest. 

Shackleton: If it were to be made compulsory, it would be harmful to the economy and wouldn’t suit the many people who would prefer a different pattern of work. See what happened in France with the mandatory 35-hour week.

Would people be productive enough to make up for the loss of the one day, enough so that employers wouldn’t be losing out?

Cooper: In the 1970s we had major, major strikes of electric power workers, miners and so on. We had so many of them that it got to the point where we could only give businesses three days of power a week … and the productivity per capita was the highest it’s ever been.

Shackleton: In some manufacturing sectors and office jobs, over time productivity might increase to make this feasible. But there are many jobs – heart surgeons, workers in care homes, firefighters, restaurant and hotel workers, bar staff, etc. – where work is required throughout the week and if you have a day off, somebody else has to be employed to do your job. You can’t bundle all your heart operations, or cooking meals or putting out fires into Monday-Thursday only.

Should people be paid for doing work emails while commuting?

Cooper: Forty percent are doing their emails at night at weekends, and 25 percent are doing them while they’re on holiday. … The French law says no manager can send an email to their subordinates, to their staff, out of office hours. … It’s unenforceable, but it’s sending a message … if you start to pay people for the hours that they’re going to spend on their emails, you have to total them all up. And, boy oh boy, that would be an enormous cost to employers. Better to control it.

Shackleton: No. But sensible employers will have a protocol about responding to emails and what can reasonably be expected.

Should jobs that aren’t formally recognized, like caring for an elderly parent, become paid?

Cooper: Yes. … it’s also creating difficulty to our economy because the people who are caring for other people are not working themselves. Somebody needs to pay them.

Shackleton: By whom? The taxpayer or the elderly parent? Should the same apply to parents of young children? It may be appropriate in some cases to provide benefits for carers but this is not “pay” in the sense of a wage.

In 1930, John Keynes predicted we’d have a 15-hour working week in the future. Why haven’t we reached that?

Cooper: Harold Wilson talked about the “white heat” of technology in a speech he gave, predicting that by the year 2000 we’d be working 20-hour weeks – half the weeks we’re doing now. Actually, technology, in my view, has overloaded us. … Look how much non-productive time people spend on their emails.

Shackleton: We could all have a 15-hour week if we were prepared to accept the living standards of the 1930s. Most people are not. Keynes imagined a future where people would sit around in drab clothes talking about relationships and painting pictures of each other like his Bloomsbury [Group] mates. In reality, they want big cars, nice houses, fashionable outfits, lots of gadgets and holidays in Florida. Aren’t people awful?

One of the reasons the pay gap between men and women exist is because when women have children they’re more likely to take maternity leave and return to part-time work, which means that they don’t get promoted as much on average and so don’t end up in as many high-paying jobs as men. How can we solve this and is paid paternity leave, as in some Nordic countries, the solution?

Cooper: Well, paid paternity leave, or let’s just say parental leave pay, I think that’s really quite important. The gender pay gap is partly a consequence of discontinuous careers like you suggested – if women have to go have babies and then they come into the labor market later – and it’s also partly a function of women not being assertive enough about their comparative pay.

Shackleton: I don’t think this is something we should try to “solve.” While we should attempt to eliminate discriminatory employment practices, the pattern of male and female employment is to a large extent chosen by individuals. To attempt to make them conform to what some people see as an ideal is almost totalitarian in motive – “We know what’s best for families” – and unlikely to work in practice. Even highly paid, and therefore costly, paternity leave is unlikely to have much impact.

Are you worried about automation and the effect it’s going to have on jobs?

Cooper: No. I’ll tell you why no. Every time there’s a new technological development, we have the mantra of “Oh my God, there’s going to be wholesale job loss.” And every time we don’t get it. The reason I don’t think AI (Artificial Intelligence) or whatever new technologies we get will cause major job loss – there may be a transition period where there’s a bit of job loss, as we transition into a new technological era – but that technology will spawn a whole range of jobs we never even thought about.

Shackleton: No. This is just a new version of an old fear of change. In a free market, new jobs are continually created as tastes and aptitudes change. What we need to do is ensure that governments don’t mess up the job-creating process by excessive regulation.

What can bosses do to make their employees happier in the workplace?

Cooper: What senior managers should do is ensure that the managers they hire, from shop floor to top floor, have emotional intelligence. That they are good people managers, not technicians. We promote too many people based on their technical skills and not their people skills. If you want to have a healthier work environment, you have to have people who manage people by praise and reward, not fault-finding, who allow them to work flexibly if they can, who recognize when they’re not coping, who don’t give them unmanageable workloads and who give them realistic deadlines.

Shackleton: The workforce in the UK is incredibly diverse and sensible employers will be aware of this and try to adapt their offer to different groups. There is no “one size fits all” solution that works with textile workers in Bradford, dealers in the City, farmworkers in Devon and teaching assistants in Glasgow, let alone with all the variations by age, gender, ethnicity, health status, sexual orientation, etc.

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