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OPINION: Four-day work week would make WA the envy of Australia

May 18, 2023

Most of what you know about a four-day work week is wrong.

For starters, the idea is not about chopping off a day at the end of the week and letting everyone have a three-day weekend.

Instead, it’s about undertaking a wholesale change to our workplace and corporate culture, neither of which are impervious to change.

A century ago, Australians and other peoples of the then-British Empire worked 60 hours a week or more.

The very idea of a weekend, complete with the traditional Australian Sunday roast, was only enshrined in law in 1948.

Compulsory superannuation and four weeks paid annual leave? Well, Australians only got these perks in the 1990s and 1970s respectively, and to this day, most Americans don’t have either.

Why is now the right time for a four-day work week?

According to the Productivity Commission, Australians today produce four times as much output every hour than in the 1960s, but our work hours have remained the same.

Smartphones and instant messaging applications mean that we are always connected, and that we often work outside our work hours.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also taught many Australians — me included — that we can work in places other than an office cubicle, and at times other than Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm.

So, how exactly does a four-day work week work?

The great thing about the idea is that there’s no one-size-fits-all model.

Some countries, such as Belgium, have adopted a compressed model whereby employees work longer days in return for working fewer days per week.

Others, such as Iceland, have adopted a 100:80:100 model whereby employees receive 100 per cent of their pay; work 80 per cent of their hours; and receive 100 per cent of their entitlements.

Under these models, businesses can choose whether to only trade four days a week or roster their employees so that they maintain operations across five days.

The main arguments against a four-day work week are that productivity will go down, and it would be unfair for workers that are unable to participate.

The first point is wrong, and the second one can be managed.

Countless trials and studies have shown that where employees work four days a week, they are at least, if not more, productive than before.

In 2021, consumer goods company Unilever allowed its 81 New Zealand employees to work four days a week and at the same pay.

The trial found that staff took 34 per cent fewer sick days, work-life conflicts dropped by 67 per cent, and meeting times fell by an average of 3.5 hours per week.

In 2022 in the biggest trial to date, 3000 UK employees across 61 firms took part in a six-month trial of a 32-hour week.

That trial resulted in sick days falling by 65 per cent, resignations dropping by 57 per cent, and even revenue going up by 1.4 per cent.

Another piece of news that may surprise you is that a four-day work week is already here. In Australia. In WA.

I’ve been in touch with several businesses that have adopted a four-day work week, and the resounding message is that it’s about working smarter, not harder.

One business, specialising in the arts, has mandated that every meeting feature an agenda, take place standing up, and not exceed 15 minutes.

Another, in logistics, has adopted a simple pink and yellow Post-It note system to cut down on unproductive discussions.

If an employee has a yellow note up, it means they’re available for a chat. If they have a pink one up, it means they’re in the zone, and not to be disturbed.

Not every worker will be able to participate in a four-day work week. But those who can’t nonetheless benefit through two ways.

When the architects of the UK and New Zealand trials surveyed employees about what they did on their extra day off, they found that they devoted time to charity, household renovations, and working on their mental health.

These are all measures that benefit the entire working population, through more commerce, building a stronger civil society, and less expenditure on public services.

A four-day work week will also shift the dial on other ways to improve conditions for working Australians.

I’m talking about the right to disconnect, a stable and predictable roster, and 52 weeks of paid parental leave: all of which are measures recommended by a recent Labor-Greens Senate inquiry.

That same inquiry recommended that the Commonwealth Government organise a trial of a four-day work week.

On a State level, Victorian Premier Dan Andrews went to the last election promising one as well.

The best thing that the WA Government can do is to pick a discrete department and carry out a 12-month trial of the idea.

I don’t think that I must spell out the competitive advantage that WA would enjoy compared to other states by having a 32-hour week.

Not only would a four-day work week be good for our economy, but it would be in keeping with our character as a laid-back place to live and work.

For the remainder of my first term in Parliament — where three-day sitting weeks are the norm — I will lobby the Premier Mark McGowan for such a trial.

Wilson Tucker MLC is an independent member for the Mining and Pastoral Region.