Henley Business School found that companies operating on four days saved a total of £92bn, or 2% of annual sales © Fizkes/Dreamstime

Fewer working hours should be “a natural and desirable outcome of a progressive society”, reckons economic historian Robert Skidelsky. Unilever concurs. The consumer goods group is switching its New Zealand staff to a four-day working week for a five-day salary. If successful, the switch could apply across the group globally.

There are multiple advantages beyond a Friday morning lie-in. Happier staff work better. Reduced office space and commutes pay a green dividend too. Henley Business School found that companies operating on four days saved a total of £92bn, or 2 per cent of annual sales.

Workers should not hold their breath. Trials, both at country and company levels, have failed to spark a revolution. France’s 35-hour-week réduction du temps de travail, introduced in 1998, was weakened by subsequent governments as employers extracted concessions.

Research charity Wellcome concluded the switch was “too operationally complex”. British bosses have never come on board, fretting that shorter working weeks could leave a puddle of red ink.

Lex charts showing average number of work hours per week in selected European countries

Reform depends on businesses reliably increasing output with backing from progressive unions. Britain can count on neither. Productivity has stagnated since the financial crisis of 2008. With just 89 robots per 10,000 employees — one-tenth the level of Singapore — the UK ranks below G7 countries and even Hungary.

Still, if ever there was a time to win over doubters it is now. The pandemic has proved many jobs can be carried out productively from home. Nixed commutes alone can yield an extra day for City-working suburbanites.

Lex chart showing UK labour productivity growth

Autonomy, a think-tank, advocates repurposing the furlough scheme to support shorter working weeks. The first year’s bill for helping the arts and entertainment industry transition to shorter hours, it calculates, would be less than the estimated £3.8bn cost of cutting stamp duty on property.

Forest Gate, a secondary school in east London, lopped Friday afternoons off the formal school day a year ago. Teachers can head home at noon, as can pupils not in detention or extra classes. Grades are high, given the catchment area. But some parents would still resist shorter mandatory hours at the schools their own kids attend.

It took a shopkeeper — Boots — to cement a reduction in the working week to five days back in the 1930s. It would be fitting for Unilever, another purveyor of creams and shampoos, to knock off an extra day in the current crisis.

The Lex team is interested in hearing more from readers. Please tell us what you think of the feasibility of four-day working weeks the comments section below.

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