Four-day week to be debated; automation could help manufacturing adapt

Robots could help manufacturing businesses move to a four-day week
Robots could help manufacturing businesses move to a four-day week

A bill in UK parliament looking to reduce working hours and give workers the chance to try a four-day week will be debated next Tuesday (18 October).

Labour MP Peter Dowd has tabled the bill to reduce the maximum working week from 48 hours to 32 hours, giving “every British worker the chance of moving to a four-day week”.

The bill, which will be discussed in the House of Commons, must proceed successfully through several stages before it can become law.

Dowd said he was introducing the legislation “because we’re long overdue a shorter working week”.

He added: “In the UK, workers put in some of the longest working hours across Europe while pay and productivity remains low in comparison.”

Benjamin Laker, professor of leadership at Henley Business School, said that in order to adopt the four-day week in the UK, there would need to be “a significant shift” in both political attitudes and traditional ways of viewing and legislating for the workplace.

“Currently, full-time work is seen as the norm in the UK, with employees expected to work five days a week, Monday to Friday. This approach is based on the traditional 9-5 working day, which has been in place for many years. However, there is growing evidence that this model is no longer fit for purpose in the modern world.

“Employers will have to recognise that employees can be just as productive in four days as they can in five, and employees may in some cases be willing to work slightly longer hours over four days instead of five if this legislation changes.”

He added: “The current economic climate in the UK is one of uncertainty and belt-tightening. Many businesses are struggling to stay afloat, and workers are feeling the pinch as salaries stagnate or jobs are lost altogether. In such tough times, it's understandable that employers might be looking for ways to cut costs – but could a shorter working week be one of them?

“A four-day week would give workers a much-needed boost during these difficult times. It would also cut employers' costs, as they would need to provide less office space and equipment. And it would reduce environmental damage, as fewer people would be commuting to and from work.

“Consequently, the UK government is ‘open to the idea’ of a shorter working week, and it’s been trialled in a number of countries with success, so this bill could land well.

“However, there are also some drawbacks to consider. Many businesses rely on customer footfall, and a shorter week could mean that they lose out on income. And it might be difficult to reorganise work schedules so that everyone can still get their job done in four days – consider healthcare workers for example.

“Also, some people during these challenging times might prefer to work longer hours so that they can earn more money – and may therefore rely on side hustles.”

There have been questions raised over whether the four-day week model can work effectively in manufacturing businesses or roles without a loss of productivity.

Mark Gray, UK and Ireland country manager at Universal Robots, believes greater automation is the key to making it work.

He said the conversations around the four-day week have “by and large, centred around office workers, suggesting that they will be the ones most able to reap the benefits of such a change”.

“We must, however, make sure that traditionally blue-collar workers, in particular manufacturers, do not get left behind in these conversations around employee wellbeing and work-life balance. The industry is facing skills and labour gaps, all while trying to improve productivity and redress supply chain issues, meaning a reduction in working hours may currently seem impossible.

“In fact, by embracing automation, manufacturers may well find more solutions to their problems than expected, while supporting their employees along the way – and even unlocking the possibility of the four-day week.”

He added that while the traditional fear in manufacturing is that robots may replace human labour, this introduction of automation “may well be the key to retaining staff”.

“Human labour will always be the single biggest asset a manufacturer has, and if ongoing recruitment challenges have shown us anything, it’s that these employees must be valued more than ever before.

“By automating menial factory tasks, employees will be able to dedicate their time to more stimulating and fulfilling roles. In theory, this would reduce time spent at work and even get rid of the night shift which is known to have adverse effects on employees’ health. In turn, this could allow for more flexible work patterns and even the possibility of a four-day week, with productivity shortfalls offset by automation.”

He said these changes would also improve the overall perception of these roles, attracting more young people into manufacturing.

A raft of businesses on the UK’s six-month trial of a four-day working week pilot programme have recently provided feedback on their experiences so far at the halfway point.

The only print-related company on the trial is Bookishly, which offers a range of literary inspired products including prints, stationery and clothing subscriptions.

See the recent Printweek briefing on the four-day working week, for further analysis and comment.