The reality is that Covid-19 caused dramatic damage to businesses and very many just want to get back to a ‘normal’ business routine.

The idea of a shorter working week has raised its head again, even in Portugal. A shorter workweek is being hailed as the future of employee productivity and work-life balance. You don’t have to look far back to see that the working week was normally six days. Debates over the length of the workweek are nothing new. In 1926, the Ford Motor Company standardised the five-day week pattern; beforehand, the common practice was a six-day workweek, with only Sundays off.

Henry Ford started it

“Henry Ford’s theory was that five working days, with the same pay, would increase worker productivity, in that people would put more effort into the shorter workweek,” says Jim Harter, chief scientist for workplace management and wellbeing at US analytics firm Gallup. The theory, at least in America, seemed to work quite well an in the in the decades since, the five-day workweek has become common USA practice.

During the industrial revolution in the UK, most people worked between 12 and 16 hours per day, six days a week, without any paid holidays or vacation. Safety hazards were everywhere, machines didn't have any safety covers or fences and children as young as 5 years old were operating them. Wages were very low, women and children received less than half the wages of men and had to work the same amount of time.

No annual paid holidays

It was only in the summer of 1938, thousands of working-class Britons got their very first tastes of sun, sea and sand, thanks to a new law that meant they could take paid holiday. Places like Blackpool suddenly saw thousands of people flocking there on the train to enjoy this new phenomenon of a holiday. It took over a hundred years before people discovered a foreign holiday, generally for two weeks.

So much progress in a relatively short time, but now has this gone too far? The frequently used argument is ‘I will work harder and longer during the four days’. Let’s be reasonable, some will, some wont. I haven’t read anywhere that people promoting a four-day week expect to receive a smaller salary. It would seem to be, I want to work less, but for the same salary.

This raises the obvious question, how can a business run based on a four day week. Will shops only open for four days? Of course not, they will have to hire extra staff. The only problem here is that there is already a shortage of people looking for work.

What about the tourism industry?

Hotels and restaurants are already struggling to find staff. If people only want to work for four days a week, it means more staff are needed, and they simply aren’t available. I know of restaurants who can’t open post Covid-19 as they can’t find the staff they need. Others are having to open for reduced hours.

Joe O’Connor, the chief executive of 4 Day Week Global, said there was no way to “turn the clock back” to the pre-pandemic world. “Increasingly, managers and executives are embracing a new model of work which focuses on quality of outputs, not quantity of hours,” he said. “Workers have emerged from the pandemic with different expectations around what constitutes a healthy life-work balance.”

Many people will like the idea of a three-day weekend, but for the vast amount of businesses this simply isn’t practical. At best it will raise their labour costs to an unacceptable level or lower their ability to produce whatever service or product they deal in.

Some companies are experimenting with a four-day week

In the UK, more than 3,000 workers at 60 companies across Britain will trial a four-day working week, in what is thought to be the biggest pilot scheme to take place anywhere in the world. This will run initially from June to December. Spain has also started a similar experiment this year.

In Madrid, in the summer, they have run an interesting experiment for several years. On Fridays office workers start much earlier in the morning, don’t have lunch, and leave at 15:00. That seems a reasonable and practical approach to increasing the weekend without decreasing output.

The constant augment I find from my research is that companies worldwide, post Covid-19, need to recruit more staff who are prepared to work in the office. It is claimed that they need to offer a four-day week in order to attract staff to work for them.

Who dictates terms of employment?

We seem to be entering a period of time when the workforce feel they can dictate the terms of their employment, otherwise, they will find work elsewhere. All this will change when there are more people looking for work and are prepared to work five days a week. Perhaps the spiralling cost of living may force people to start to look afresh at what they need to do in order to pay their way.

It’s worth remembering that just over a hundred years ago, a six-day week was the norm, and it was common for working hours to be between 14-16 hours a day. Perhaps a five-day week and 8 hours a day is not so unreasonable.

Covid-19 has changed much more then we have initially realised.


Resident in Portugal for 50 years, publishing and writing about Portugal since 1977. Privileged to have seen, firsthand, Portugal progress from a dictatorship (1974) into a stable democracy. 

Paul Luckman