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The history of the workweek: Interview with Dr Mengyi Xu, Lecturer in HR Management, Cranfield University

The history of the workweek: Interview with Dr Mengyi Xu, Lecturer in HR Management, Cranfield University


From working-from-home being an acceptable phenomenon since the mid-18th century, to workdays being cut down to five for religious reasons, Arina Sofiah probes Dr Mengyi Xu, Lecturer in HRM, Cranfield University, on the evolution of the workweek.

Did you know, craft workers in the mid-18th century used to work from home, making dresses, shoes, or matchboxes in their kitchens or bedrooms? In fact, it wasn’t until the first industrial revolution (which occurred around the mid-18th century to the 1830s) that workers in Britain, for instance, started working in factories.

Working from home is therefore not a new concept, shares Dr Mengyi Xu. More interestingly, the conventional workweek was not always five-days long — it was six days!

So how did we go from working from home pre-factory days, to a conventional five-day workweek today, hybrid working, and to exploring a whole four-day workweek? We find out from Dr Xu.

When factory work came about, Sundays were set as a holiday for workers — mainly due to religious reasons. The six-day workweek was therefore common at the time, up until the early 20th century.

Fast forward the years, and the first five-day workweek in the US was initiated by a New England cotton mill, for two reasons.

The first reason was productivity, Dr Xu explains. “Factory owners found that their workers arrived on Monday without a clear head or any enthusiasm after the Sunday break, and they expected more leave entitlements. Later studies, for example from Human Relations School , showed that giving breaks and leaves to workers made them productive. The advancement of technology also made it possible for people to complete their required work in a shorter time, and as a result, some factory workers decided to make Saturday an off day or a day free of work. “

The second reason was due to religious reasons. Dr Xu shares: “As Jewish workers have Sabbath on Saturday, having that Saturday free is a boost for them, which led to other industries introducing a five-day workweek.”

In terms of the reactions — the beginning of every change would no doubt bring resistance, Dr Xu affirms. This was not an exception. Reducing workdays and hours meant less pay for workers, making some workers unhappy with the idea. For further context, there was not too much consumerism at the time and not too much entertainment for them to engage in, so a majority of their life was about working and earning money to afford their financial needs.

This unhappiness continued until five work days was commonly adopted by a range of industries and factories. Dr Xu gives kudos to legendary car maker Henry Ford, who gave his staff Saturdays and Sundays off, as well as set up the 40-hour workweek in 1926. This gave his workers the opportunity to spend their downtime buying consumer products, as well as spend time with their families, thus having a significant economic impact as they could keep cash circulating through the economy, Dr Xu points out. This was particularly important given that the US experienced the Great Depression in the 1920s-1930s, where around one in five people lost their job. The five-day system was officially adopted in 1932 in a bid to counter this significant loss in unemployment.

Meanwhile, for some emerging, developing countries which were suffering from the Second World War, they didn't establish a five-day workweek until possibly up to the 1990s. In the context of China, Dr Xu shares an example, the five-day workweek was announced in 1994 to ease traffic in the urban areas, provide jobs for the staggering ranks of the unemployed, and to enable workers to enjoy more free time.

We have come so far from these events to where we are today. While we can all acknowledge that challenging work norms is here to stay, will a four-day workweek become the reality that more countries — and employers — would embrace?
To Dr Xu, who admits taking on a pessimistic viewpoint, this would take time and may “possibly be impossible, even.”

She elaborates: “There has been much debate on working time regulations in the past five decades.” Going on to share the example of a “fake” four-day workweek, where employees work full-time — 40 hours over four days, she specifies: “A four-day workweek isn't a compressed work schedule, but rather, reduced hours. It would be considered as 32 hours for four days, reduced from the 40 hours for five days.”

That said, Dr Xu does note there are companies and countries already piloting this idea, with promising results for both employers and employees. One such example is Iceland, where after up to 2,500 Icelandic workers took part in a 'four-day week' experiment for around five years, workers have either moved to shorter hours for the same pay, or their wellbeing improved across a range of indicators — from perceived stress and burnout, to health and work-life balance.

What it takes to apply a four-day workweek

Applying a four-day workweek would require “radical change” in the workplace, Dr Xu tells us. “The organisation would need to analyse whether the current organisational structure, capabilities, culture, performance system, reward system, will allow that to happen. Comprehensive change is needed, along with solid commitment to the operation.”

She adds: “The four-day workweek is not merely a matter of changing one practice. Instead, a change in the structure of the organisation is required.”

However, Dr Xu cautions, the four-day week is not a “panacea to workplace problems.”

“Implementing a four-day workweek is not a solution if you already have a toxic workplace where workers are leaving, engagement is low, and there are high levels of grievance.

“Reducing working hours does not truly make the environment any less toxic. Instead, we need to find out what the workforce wants. Do employees feel comfortable moving from five to four workdays without feeling any career stigma? Some debate is that even if employers do offer such benefits to attract and retain employees, employees do not feel comfortable taking it up.”

The reason for this, she notes, is that there is a “very strong image of ideal workers in the workplace”, with many employees holding the belief that the longer and harder they work, the more they will get in return, such as better career development, promotions, and pay raises. “Even if you work reduced hours, and you do show that dedication and commitment, there is a lot of competition in the workplace. Some employees will work harder and longer to get more. This ‘ideal worker’ image in the organisational culture will make applying a four-day workweek much harder.”

Overall, Dr Xu confirms that the four-day workweek is not possible in the short term because of the complexities behind this change. However, in the long run, when rules are more formalised, paired with human-centred culture systems, there is a chance that it could become a reality. That said, the reality will depend on the industry, sector, and nature of the business. – for instance, such an arrangement would be particularly difficult to apply to hospitals, airports, or other service sectors as customers expect service seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

Finding that balance between work demands and a shorter timeline

Dr Xu emphasises how a more holistic and robust approach can help employers and employees find the right balance between meeting work demands and running on a shorter timeline — a concern that plagues many. She references a belief of Frederick Hertzberg, a psychologist in the 1920s often referred to for management authorities which can be applied here: that if you want people to do a good job for you, you need to set a good job for them. “Even before implementing shorter workweeks, a good job design is very important. Organisations should approach this transition in an employee-friendly way. For example, employers may suggest a flexible approach where employees choose their own time off during the week. Whether employees prefer having Monday, Tuesday, or whatever day it may be off is up to their own individual needs.”

Alternatively, standardising the same day off ensures that the organisation can get majority of work done within those four days. As a whole, it is important to consult employees before launching any new working time arrangements, and Dr Xu encourages employers to have a clear goal for the change before making the necessary analyses. It is also important to create and foster a workplace culture that challenges the ‘ideal worker’ image, and ensure employees feel safe to take that one day off alongside their weekend without worrying about their careers being stigmatised, she highlights.

There is currently a very popular work environment called R-O-W-E - Result Oriented Work Environment. In this result-oriented working environment, employees do not worry about how long they're working and when they’re working. Instead, they ensure work performance is based on results produced such as output and performance. If feasible and appropriate, employers may consider setting up this kind of environment for their workforce, focusing on how results link to the reward systems in place to make people engaged and motivated in the long run, Dr Xu advises.

Above all, no organisational change can move forward without leadership – and line managers play an important role here. This group of stakeholders should be trained to be capable and empathetic. Not only should they possess emotional intelligence and the necessary soft skills, but they should also be able to consider an individual's developmental and personal needs when it comes to workloads and scheduling working time.

What does the future hold for the workweek?

Looking to the future, with these considerations, Dr Xu sees a four-day workweek becoming a viable and anticipated option. Particularly, the advancement in technology would allow businesses to continue as usual while still pushing for a meaningful career with a better work-life balance. Dr Xu explains: "Manual tasks or heavy work have been replaced by AI or robotics. Understandably, some people have concerns about losing their jobs. People will need to upskill themselves, and there will be new job positions popping up, but we are still time away from that.

In the Asian context, the working culture in many parts is influenced by Confucianism where work dedication and hard-work ethics are emphasised. With this being deeply rooted, yet at the same time with the expectation of work-life balance and Zenism increasing especially in Generation Z, Dr Xu believes the legacy working culture will not be easily challenged in Asia. "The trending involution ('neijuan’) phenomenon in China would be around for a while, like a rat race. Even if the four-day workweek is formalised, I do have concerns about its validity and effectiveness."

Dr Xu points out that many Asian employees can't thoroughly enjoy the full weekend as it is, as a lot still work on the weekend. She brings up the ‘9-9-6' working pattern common in China, where employees work from 9am to 9pm, six days a week — 72 working hours in total. As such, even with five working days and two days off, employees are not able to enjoy the weekend as Dr Xu found in her work-life balance research in China. Thus, her concerns are about whether or not the four-day workweek will end up as a kind of tokenism, where people would still work to demonstrate better performance so as to achieve better rewards and compensations.

Offering an all-round perspective, Dr Xu shares an anecdote of own personal experience hearing a debate between two friends — CEOs that were part of the UK’s four-day workweek pilot programme which started in February. After implementing the four-day workweek, one CEO didn't find it very psychologically secure because they couldn't really know whether their employees were performing their best within those four days. Every week, he felt as if they had work left to be done, that they could have done on Friday. Because they were in the transition stage, they still had that high expectation of working in a full 40-hour week, and amount of workload. In the short term, because they couldn't get any measurement on the effectiveness of the four-day workweek in the first couple months, he does not feel very secure. This highlights the need for trust between the employer and employees.

On the other hand, the other CEO particularly enjoyed having a four-day workweek. He observed happier employees, feeling more productive and ‘fresh’ after coming back from the three-day break. With reference to the Parkinson’s Law - “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion" - the second CEO noted that the four-day workweek went against it.

The debate shared by Dr Xu truly reflects the varying opinions on the four-day workweek – while some are for it, many are hesitant.

 An excerpt of this article first appeared in the Q1 edition of Human Resources Online's Southeast Asia e-magazine. View a copy of the e-magazine here, where you'll find power-packed features and interviews with leaders from Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, the US, and more!

hrsg q1 2022 ofc

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