Carlos Slim Helú, reportedly the richest man in the world, has called for the introduction of a three-day working week. Before employers brace themselves for dozens of flexible working requests as staff demand four day weekend, Lewis Silkin comments on whether this increased flexibility could ever really work.

Wouldn’t it be lovely? Imagine long weekends in the South of France, time with family and friends, scope to take up new hobbies…

Productive workforce

At a recent conference, Carlos Slim – reportedly the richest man in the world – called for the introduction of a three-day working week as a way to improve people’s quality of life and create a more productive workforce. The upside: we would have lots more leisure time. The downside: we’d need to work 11-hour days and retire later, in our mid-seventies.

Many employees in the UK already routinely work ten or 11-hour days and it is likely that people will increasingly need to work well into their seventies in future anyway. Yet there’s no denying the way people work has changed dramatically over the past few decades, with advances in technology, shifting demographics and globalisation all contributing to an increasingly flexible labour market. It’s certainly worth exploring how working time might be reorganised to reflect this trend - but is Carlos’s brainwave a step too far?

Parallels have been drawn with Henry Ford’s introduction of the five-day working week in the 1920s, which shocked many at the time, but caught on and led to him being widely credited as inventor of the modern weekend. He claimed production levels at Ford factories were at least as high when operating on a five-day week as a six-day week. Eliminating one eight-hour working day per week, however, is a different thing from introducing fewer, longer, working days.    

Individual employee productivity

Would productivity per worker increase under Carlos Slim’s proposal to such an extent that, as with Ford in the 1920s, all the work previously covered in five days could be done in three days? Data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development suggests that productivity per hour worked falls when the number of hours worked per person increases. It is also widely thought that quality and productivity may be higher when individuals work less hours.

However, most of the analysis of employee productivity looks at working hours on a weekly, monthly or yearly basis, rather than daily. A 48-hour week can be four 12-hour days or six eight-hour days – each scenario may have a quite different effect on employee productivity. In any event, since data from the Office for National Statistics suggests that UK productivity levels have fallen since the recession – perhaps tackling this should be the priority before considering dramatic changes.

There’s also the fact that full-time employees in the UK already have the longest average weekly working hours in the EU (42.2 hours). The move to a three-day week advocated by Slim would mean working 33 hours a week - a major reduction in weekly working time. Assuming productivity would not increase sufficiently - at least initially - to enable the employer to maintain output with the same number of employees working a shorter week, additional staff would be needed to cover the shortfall. Or would employees just work unpaid overtime to get the job done and end up working three 15-hour days?

Changing technology

In an increasingly technology enabled workplace, the scope for “seepage” into the four-day weekend would be high. There are also practical consequences in terms of meeting clients’ and customers’ needs. In many workplaces, particularly professional services, maintaining continuity when dealing with clients is extremely important. Successfully ensuring clients receive a seamless service can already be challenging and would be even more difficult under Slim’s proposed regime.

According to a recent Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development report, employees say they are working harder, even though average working hours have been falling in recent decades. Increasing work intensity is already raising concerns about the impact on workforce health and wellbeing. Not all employees would be likely to flourish if weekly hours were condensed into three days.

Customer services and call centre operatives in particular may find 11 hours of dealing with the public exhausting. Those in monotonous jobs may pose a safety risk if their concentration is flagging towards the end of the day. The potential negative effects of longer working hours on health and wellbeing can be offset to some extent by the way people are managed and their work is organised but some employees may find that, after nine hours of slog, they are no longer at their best.

Work life balance

Another important issue is the potential impact on working families already struggling to find flexible and affordable childcare. Working three longer days would be a huge challenge for many families on a practical level and would be likely to make finding the right balance between work and family life even harder to achieve.

There is no doubt that the world of work is changing rapidly. While working a three-day week as standard is probably a long way from becoming a universal reality, that’s not to say “traditional” working arrangements will be the norm in the future. The drivers of workplace change and the desire for flexibility among employers and employees are likely to continue. In recognition of these trends, the Government has introduced various measures to facilitate flexibility in the workplace - for example, the removal of the default retirement age a few years ago, the recent extension of the right to request flexible working to almost all employees and the proposed new shared parental leave regime.

But the harbingers of real change will be businesses themselves. While most employers would probably be reluctant to embark on the paradigm shift in working patterns suggested by the richest man in the world, many already recognise the business benefits of embracing a diverse range of flexible working arrangements - such as compressed hours, flexi-time, home working, job sharing, staggered hours and term-time working. So while a four-day weekend may not be around the corner, perhaps more widely available and innovative alternative modes of working will be.

By Lewis Silkin LLP


Do you work compressed hours already? Or do you work for an employer where this sort of working arrangement is commonplace? Share your thoughts about flexible working and unconventional using the comments section below.

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