Five days, a minimum of 40 hours at work? In some sectors of the economy, this may not be the case. Due to the pandemic that has lasted more than a year and the changes that have come with it, new practices are emerging – in the economy and in the labour market. Therefore, a four-day working week is not so unrealistic; it is being introduced in Spain, for example. So where would a four-day working week work, what challenges and threats does it bring and is it a solution for Generation Z? Hana Štverková and Petra Horváthová from the Faculty of Economics, VSB – Technical University of Ostrava answer.
It is said that Generation Z does not give as much to work as the previous generation and wants to have more free time. So is the option of having more free time a generational thing?
Basically, yes. Generation Y and Z both prioritise the value of leisure. These young people place a premium on work-life balance; promotions and managerial positions are not their main goals. They welcome the opportunity to use alternative ways of working. Like previous generations, they consider it important to have an interesting job and take full advantage of all the opportunities offered by an open society. Still, they are not willing to sacrifice their personal life to do so.
In contrast, the previous Generation X prefers a working life, long-term employment, a regular work schedule; these people are willing to work overtime and give up their leisure time. Although today almost three-quarters of Generation Y work full-time, more than half are considering the possibility of freelancing, short-term engagements or even several jobs simultaneously.
More than 70% of Generation Z even plan to start their own business. These demands mean more challenging work and performance management for managers. Still, suppose employers can accommodate the new generation. In that case, they will gain loyal, flexible employees who want to develop, work on themselves and gain new experiences. That’s precisely the kind of people today’s companies need. Various surveys show that millennials have three priorities concerning life: money, security and leisure. Money is not their primary value, as it was for the previous generation. They prefer jobs that they enjoy and that bring opportunities, new challenges and different types of work. As the work-life balance is now important for most young employees, a four-day working week would undoubtedly contribute to this, as would a five-day, six-hour working day.
The discussion about introducing a four-day working week is increasingly resonating in the Czech Republic. For which sectors is it suitable, and for which is it unnecessary?
The possibility of a four-day working week depends on the specific company and especially the type of business. For agencies or corporations, a shorter working week is not such a problem as for manufacturing companies, for example, where working hours are essential. It is true, however, that some manufacturing businesses have used a shortened workweek with payroll restrictions to retain existing skilled workers during times of pandemic or economic crisis.
For example, during the economic recession, it was the response of the Škoda car company, which limited production to four working days from January to June 2009. On Fridays, the employees stayed at home and received 75 per cent of their wages. The reason for this restriction to four days was the fall in demand for cars caused by the global crisis. A four-day working week can also be introduced, for example, in situations of high unemployment, when there are efforts to place employees in the labour market. Still, this type of employment does not appear to be desirable in the long term.
A shorter working week will create jobs and reduce unemployment. However, this measure is not desirable or effective for manufacturing companies in normal operation. In the agricultural, food, health, construction, manufacturing, accommodation, catering and many other sectors, the introduction of a four-day working week would necessitate an increase in the number of employees by half, the introduction of job-sharing, which would, in particular, lead to an increase in the wage costs of these enterprises.
How significant is the role COVID-19 plays in the discussion? Hasn’t the pandemic, at least partly, already brought a three-day weekend?
The pandemic has brought a different perspective on home office rather than a four-day working week and a three-day weekend. For example, many companies are counting on remaining in a model where employees would work from home for two or three days after the COVID-19 crisis has subsided. For the rest of the week, they would meet their colleagues in their offices and attend necessary strategy meetings.
For example, the company Avast, based on the experience of the pandemic and internal research, is considering allowing employees to choose between working in the office every day, using shared office space to work once or twice a week and working from home the rest of the time, or even working from home permanently.
According to some experts, the COVID-19 period is considered an “autopsy room” of work habits. It is, therefore, an ideal time to seek and learn higher work productivity. Thus, it cannot be strictly said that the pandemic situation has extended the weekend. It is essential to view the use of the home office as an opportunity to perform work in a safer home environment.
Here, however, we must take into account that the individuals themselves, their intense attention and ability to concentrate on individual tasks, have a significant impact on work productivity. It is important to set the proper time management and avoid distraction. In terms of the management system, it can be said that the COVID-19 period and home office work lead to a more effective management system for workers. Meetings are shortened, activities are clearly defined, along with powers and responsibilities, and so there is a delegation of tasks and responsibilities and more effective management and communication. Thus, the pandemic situation has not led to a substantial reduction in the working week.
Once the pandemic is over, what do you think the working hours will look like? Many companies have switched to home office.
A partial home office will definitely become part of the working standard, depending on what the company does and its culture. In fact, the new era has shown that things can be done remotely. Some companies have tried this for a long time but have struggled to commit to introducing this on a wider scale.
The pandemic has confirmed that home office leads to more efficient use of time, increased performance, and higher employee satisfaction in some cases. Of course, this is not the case for all employees, but most are more satisfied, and in rare cases, people need a space in which they can work. Therefore, it is imperative to offer employees to choose what suits them better. However, the hybrid model of working from home and office requires both a high level of responsibility on the part of employees and a relationship of trust between management and their people. The partial home office and the use of shared workspaces will also have a significant impact on the ability of companies to respond flexibly to demands on the size and layout of their workspaces.
What challenges and threats would a four-day working week bring?
In this area, we agree with the vice-president of the Confederation of Industry of the Czech Republic, who says that the introduction of a four-day working week is not possible in all sectors and that it is clear that, given the demographic development, we will face problems in terms of a shortage of workers in various sectors.
The workforce is already critical in some occupations, and this trend will intensify in the future. The trend towards part-time work would drain 20 per cent of workers from the labour market, and the entrenched reluctance to employ foreigners would worsen the situation. The threats related to introducing a four-day working week are most intense, especially in the economic sphere. It is essential to think in the context of what this would entail. We have 13 public holidays in the Czech Republic. There would be another day off at the weekend – which is 156 days of rest, plus a statutory leave entitlement of 20 days (we do not consider that some companies have 30 or 40 days of leave). We are talking about 189 days a year, which, unless the year is a leap one, would leave 176 days for work.
Is it possible, then, for the companies with a 4-day working week to be productive, competitive, innovative and achieve positive economic results in 176 days without reducing the solvency of the population?
In our opinion, the challenge of the four-day working week would be in the restructuring of the management system and the management of the company as a whole, both in terms of a more effective method of managing employees, shortening meetings, clear definition of activities and processes leading to higher productivity, and on the other hand, the use of elements of Industry 4.0, namely the use of digitalisation of processes and automation. This would be reflected in a clear definition of powers and responsibilities, a delegation of tasks and duties, as well as more effective management and communication. This could be a challenge for business managers.
In Spain, politicians see the shorter working week as a new employment boost – work less so that everyone works, a four-day working week would create new jobs. Is this realistic?
In Spain, the introduction of a 4-day working week is planned using EU funds, approximately CZK 1.3 billion. It is intended to be a three-year experiment. It is, therefore, possible that, after three years, it will turn out that this situation is not sustainable without support from the funds. In Spain, there is also the idea that people will consume more – in cultural activities, sports, etc., during their free time, but this is impossible without comparable incomes. There will then have to be continuous operation in these areas. Politicians’ perceptions are influenced by their views and the resort. The reality is that if the working week is reduced to four days, it will be necessary to recruit additional staff in some sectors where daily operations are necessary. So yes, new jobs would be created, but this would, from an economic point of view, lead to an increase in the wage costs of the companies concerned, which are a direct cost for calculating the price of the product or service, and consumers would pay for this. The second option would be to reduce the wages of existing employees by reducing their working hours. However, this would not be comparable to the increase in the cost of training and employing additional people. Overall, it is necessary to reorganise a dysfunctional labour market into a functional one with reorganised working practices and processes.
The working week had changed in the history of the Czech Republic, namely in the 1960s when it was shortened from six working days to five. Although this was a completely different situation, the economy did not decline substantially. Is it not possible to think in the same way today?
The labour law regulation was gradual due to different historical and legal developments. In the 1960s, the six-day working week was reduced to five days. If we wanted to look at this in detail, we would have to study Acts No. 9/1955 Coll. and No. 11/1956 Coll. In 1956, under Act No. 45/1956 Coll. on the reduction of working time, the working time was reduced to 46 hours per week for employees under 16 years of age to a maximum of 36 hours per week. Then, 12 years later, Decree No. 63/1968 Coll. of the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs came into force on the principles for shortening the working week and introducing operating and working arrangements with a five-day working week. Since then, the standard working time has been set at 40 hours per week.
At that time, however, different rules applied to leave. It was not until 1984 that the basic annual leave entitlement for all employees was increased to a period of 3 calendar weeks. Different rules applied to maternity and parental leave.
In 2000, the basic length of leave was extended to 4 weeks by Act No. 155/2000 Coll. The Labour Code, Act No. 262/2006 Coll., has completely changed its concept, for example, employees whose employer is the state, a territorial self-government unit, a state fund, a state-funded institution, a school legal entity or a regional council of a cohesion region have a basic length of the leave of 5 calendar weeks per year. The last significant amendment is Act No 285/2020 Coll. with effect from 1 July 2020, which eliminated discrimination in calculating the length of leave for workers with unevenly distributed working hours and changed other aspects.
In this respect, and in terms of the length of maternity and parental leave and the number of public holidays, the present situation is quite different compared to that of the 1960s.
Employees have more days off, so there is more time to recover, prevent injuries and rest. It is essential to see the overall context of the scope of the working week in terms of labour law aspects and also in terms of the sector that should be concerned. The widespread introduction of a four-day working week would have a negative impact on some sectors, leading to higher prices for services and products.
What would happen if the politicians were to enforce the four-day working week after all?
It is difficult to predict what would happen if the working week were reduced to four days. There would undoubtedly be labour shortages in some sectors. The demographic curve clearly shows us how many people will be available on the labour market in the coming years or which professions will be in short supply. Since 2014, there has been a decline in the number of people of working age in the Czech Republic. Despite the extension of the retirement age, the general unemployment rate and the long-term unemployment rate have been falling, and the trend towards part-time work has been growing.
If another roughly 20 per cent of employees were to “drop out” of the labour market, as predicted by the vice-president of the Confederation of Industry of the Czech Republic, the situation would probably be quite critical. A partial solution may be the employment of labour from abroad to a much greater extent than at present or the digitisation and robotisation of production, services and other work activities. It should also be borne in mind that in some sectors, operating 24 hours a day or five days a week, introducing a four-day working week would make the situation very complicated, or new employees would have to be recruited.
How has the perception of working time changed over the years if we focus on the last ten years?
As sustainable development has been promoted in recent years, attention has also been focused on improving the quality of life, especially the working environment. The focus is on the value of human health, overall well-being in life and work, in all its aspects: physical, mental and social. Perceptions of working life and employee satisfaction are evolving in the context of global developments, social changes and trends. Many companies are trying to accommodate employees with their conceptual approach, home office options, sick days, fruit days, or other benefits. All these aspects influence the subjective perception of working hours. Currently, the Czech Republic has a statutory 40-hour working week, which is no different from the vast majority of EU countries. These conventional working hours apply to full-time employees and do not include overtime.
However, not all employees work full time. The number of part-time employees has been gradually increasing in recent years. In 2018, the average share of part-time employees in the EU was 18.5% (e.g. 47% in the Netherlands, 28% in Austria and 27% in Germany). In the Czech Republic, however, it was only 6%. Significant gender differences characterise part-time work in all EU countries. In many countries, the proportion of women in part-time employment is as high as one-third, while this is not the case for men. Given that there are generations X, Y and Z in the labour market, it is possible to observe different perceptions of working hours, the value of leisure time, job security and other aspects of subjective perceptions of the quality of working life. It depends on the personal preferences of each employee, on the industry in which they work, but from an objective point of view, people in the Czech Republic are satisfied, their overall satisfaction index between 2010–2018 was at 6.7 out of 10 points, and according to job satisfaction statistics, we are at 7.1 out of 10 points.