A four-day working week with no change in salary was once a fantasy in the minds of many workers across the globe. But what was once a pipe dream has quickly moved to a potential reality. In January, a four-day working week pilot launched in the UK which is running in parallel with other trials internationally. These formal programmes are partnering with academic researchers and think tanks to fully assess the benefits to businesses and employees alike.
For many companies today, the concept of the traditional five-day working week seems outdated. And considering the effects from the Covid-19 pandemic, where many employees were forced to juggle parenting commitments and home-schooling responsibilities alongside work, the focus on productivity over presenteeism has risen to the forefront.
Henry Ford, who coined the forty-hour-five-day working week in the early twentieth century, recognised back then that working longer hours only resulted in a small increase in productivity. Importantly, at the time factory workers of the industrial revolution were working anything between seventy and a hundred hours a week.
However, many quite rightly argue that our working industries are not all at the same level of maturity for this dream to become a reality. High-profile trials to date across companies like Microsoft, Deloitte, and KPMG have focused on implementing compressed hours for office-based roles. If a four-day week is to be truly liberating to workers globally, then by default it needs to be inclusive.
The construction industry is a notoriously overworked sector consisting of on-site roles and often plagued by presenteeism. This culture spans from site to the office where only 14 percent of labourers work fewer than 40 hours a week. In 2018, Construction News conducted research that found site and office workers reported a ‘cancerous culture’ of long working hours in the sector.
The toll of overworking often leads to many health and safety concerns for the industry. Long hours mean workers are fatigued, physically and mentally, as well as sleep deprived. These major factors can lead to a high number of on-site accidents as well as long term health conditions.
Mental health issues are also high in this industry. The UK’s Health and Safety Executive estimates that over a quarter of work-related illness in the construction industry is related to stress, depression, and anxiety. Alongside this, addiction and substance abuse are not rare for workers in this sector: in the US, it’s been found that construction workers are the second most likely to develop substance use disorders. In fact, specialists attribute this issue to long days filled with repetitive tasks. Sadly, compared to the UK average, construction workers are three times more likely to die by suicide.
What could a four-day working week do for the industry? But more importantly, how could it be introduced when the ever-present productivity crisis remains?
There’s no denying that better worker health and lower fatigue levels would lead to fewer accidents, fewer sick days, and more work ultimately getting done – which means higher productivity outputs. And if we were to move one step further, shifting the industry’s focus on productivity and hours of work to an outcomes-based approach supported by business models that enable this way of working would mean the four-day working week could be a reality for all in construction.
Main contractor Multiplex announced in October 2021 that they were offering staff the option of four-day working weeks in a new flexible-working initiative. Their hope is this will help to improve the gender balance of their company. Alongside other contractors such as McAlpine, Skanska and Wilmott Dixon, this move underpins the need for a more equally balanced industry and shows major industry players recognising the challenges to recruit and retain talent within the sector. If the construction continues as it is, firms will be unable to recruit the number of workers needed to maintain their labour-intensive business models of today.
A four-day week would make working in construction more appealing to new recruits, reduce the physical and mental strain for older workers—meaning fewer early retirements—and make it easier for women to join the industry, since long hours often alienate women who usually take the lead on caregiving responsibilities at home. This would help plug the employment gap – after all we need a modern construction industry to tackle modern issues such as the climate crisis, and a four-day week could help us do that.
With the rise of the use of digital technology in the workplace, the construction industry’s move towards 3D working practices and BIM-first construction strategies means the opportunity to change mindsets and archaic practices is here. Rising use of construction management software on site and in the office means workers can connect to their construction sites quickly, easily and more importantly from anywhere. This also opens more roles for women in the industry who may need to work more flexibly but, most importantly, enables transparency.
Time lost searching or waiting for missing information will soon become a thing of the past by working in new and innovative ways. This, coupled with more innovative outcomes-based business models, will be transformative for the industry. In fact, it can be argued that a four-day working week would most likely have larger and wider ranging benefits on-site than in any office. With a stronger focus on work-life balance coupled with the opportunity to work on some of the most interesting projects in the world, we’re at a turning point to change perceptions of the industry. Now the only question is when, not how.