The trials and errors of Scotland’s four-day week

A shock poll commissioned by the IPPR Scotland thinktank has revealed this week that more than 80 per cent of Scots would like to work fewer hours for the same pay. This may well prompt further revelations about the religious leanings of the Pope, or the toilet habits of bears.

But in the meantime, the IPPR has called on the Scottish government to extend its financial support for companies who want to trial a four-day working week.

This is still quite a modest proposal. The SNP manifesto for the May elections promised to establish a £10 million fund for companies trialling the shorter week, with the results used to consider a more general shift ‘as and when Scotland gains full control of employment rights’. There are no plans to introduce a four-day week straightaway, even if it were possible to do so.

Nonetheless, there is a lot of utopian thinking here – and significant risks too.

It is perfectly reasonable to believe that cutting working hours would have a positive effect on people’s wellbeing, and even that they might be more productive. But it is dangerous to pretend that this would be an easy win.

For a start, in order for people to do the same amount of work in four days as five, and therefore still justify the same pay, their hourly productivity would have to increase by as much as 25 per cent. This might be possible in some jobs, but not many.

It would certainly make no sense for any governments to impose reductions in the working week regardless of individual circumstances. This may be a particular problem in the public sector where, for example, it is hard to see how a doctor or firefighter can deal with as many emergencies in four days as they can in five.

The results of trials in other countries are not as impressive as many seem to think, either. It has been suggested that some Icelandic civil servants have been able to complete all their work in a shorter week. But perhaps this just says a lot about the inefficiency of the Icelandic public sector. It is hardly a great vote of confidence in how things are done now in Scotland to suggest that this could easily be replicated here.

And if we are looking for lessons from elsewhere, France’s attempts to cut the working week are widely recognised as a costly failure, especially for public services.

Even where it is possible to make such big productivity gains, it is not obvious why the government needs to get involved at all. Businesses and their staff can, and should, be left to work this out for themselves. The pandemic has already accelerated the trend towards a more dynamic labour market, including home working and the growth of the ‘gig economy’ – which is surely a ‘good thing’.

Put another way, what is the market failure that justifies state intervention? I get that some on the ‘progressive left’ might think that bosses are evil. But are bosses also so stupid that they are missing out on an obvious opportunity to boost productivity and save costs? Even imperfect markets are likely to do a better job here than socialist planners, or trade union barons.

Supporters of a four-day week often argue that it could level the playing field between those who can work longer hours and those with other responsibilities, such a homemakers, who are often women.

However, this is really an argument for more flexible working in general (including so-called ‘zero-hours contracts’, which of course the SNP hates), rather than a one-size-fits-all policy dictated by the government.

Indeed, lower-paid workers in customer service roles are perhaps the least likely to benefit from a four-day week. Could someone in hospitality or social care easily look after 25 per cent more clients every day? Do they really waste a lot of time in pointless management meetings?

At least the Scottish government is still only talking about trials. Perhaps these could provide some helpful evidence on the downsides of a four-day week.

But with the Scottish economy only just emerging from the Covid crisis, labour shortages growing, and the nation’s public finances in a dreadful state, it is difficult to see how the timing could be much worse.

The piece was first published by the Spectator on 3rd September 2021

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