Germany trialing a 4-day week like the U.K., U.S. and Portugal—but the country needs the opposite of a short week, senior economist says



The idea of a four-day work week has been an enigma of sorts—on one hand, employees are keen to go to great lengths to have it, and the well-being and productivity benefits are significant, too. Yet, only a handful of countries have tried it out and even fewer companies have made it the norm. 

Germany is now set to join the likes of the U.S., Britain and Portugal in piloting a shorter work week. 

The program, which is set to start on Feb. 1, will last six months—the same as its peers’ experiments—and will include hundreds of employees across 45 participating companies, Dale Whelehan, CEO at Auckland-based 4 Day Week Global, the non-profit leading the pilot told Fortune

The tricky timing

The program follows a 100:80:100 principle, wherein participating companies stick to 100% pay in 80% of the time while, in theory, achieving 100% output.

“This is essentially a human resource transformation project and it is a productivity intervention. So organizations are really struggling to grapple with improving their productivity or output of their businesses’ performance—that’s because they’re fundamentally missing the foundation of a business which is run by its people” Whelehan said.

The four-day work week, with its reputation of yielding promising results in past trials, will be rolled out at a tricky time for the German labor market, which faces a slew of pressures including farmers’ protests, a shortage in skilled workers and sluggish growth.

In addition, recessionary fears and soft global demand is expected to cause a hiring freeze in the country through 2024. Groups of doctors and metal workers also went on strike last year—both over wages and working hours (the metal workers unions IG Metall demanded a 32-hour work week, which they secured in a deal last month). 

The debate surrounding working hours in Germany is a contentious one—an overwhelming 73% of Germans are in favor of cutting the work week short while receiving the same wage.

As such, Germany, which is home to a large population of part-time workers, boasts lower hours worked in a year than the OECD average of 1,752 hours per year. And although the country has relatively low unemployment rates, having a labor force that works 23% less than the OECD average remains a strain on the economy. The country’s finance minister Christian Lindner has also been vocal about how working fewer hours could hurt prosperity.  

Longer hours actually needed?

The four-day work week pilot in itself is unlikely to have significant ripple effects. But given how demographic changes are driving shifts such as a shortage in availability of skilled workers, Germany needs policies that can incentivize people to work longer hours, argues Holger Schäfer, a senior economist at the Institute of German Economy. 

“The four-day work week won’t help any of the problems currently affecting the labour market. On the contrary, our most serious problem is the labour shortage caused by demographic change. Working fewer hours won’t alleviate that. We need better incentives to work longer hours to compensate for demographic change,” he told Fortune.

But reports have found links to higher productivity from having an additional day off in the work week, something that has been observed in past pilots. Germany has seen productivity slide in recent years as a result of poor infrastructure investment—so could a shorter week help address that concern? Maybe not, Schäfer said. He thinks it can be hard to gauge that from a short program involving voluntary participants. 

“The pilot study won’t generate an answer to the question whether or not the four-day work week can be successful,” he said, adding that one of the shortcomings is that the sample set of participating companies won’t be compared to companies that maintain a five-day week, leaving many German companies unrepresented. 

A more likely outcome, Schäfer suggests, is that employers and employees will find new avenues to achieve flexibility by accommodating individual needs and preferences.   

Whelehan said that the 4DWG was working on recruiting “control participants” or companies that don’t shrink their work hours, as points of reference when assessing metrics like productivity in future pilots. He said that while there are shortcomings at present, the pilot programs were very much a work in progress.

“You have to start research somewhere. This is us building the evidence case to showcase that something like this may work,” Whelehan said. “We’re still so young in the conversation about a four-day week.”

Benefits of the shorter work week

Companies that have participated in four-day week pilots, such as in the U.K., have seen success in curbing burnout and sick days while improving job retention. Some German companies involved in the project are looking to make similar strides in the workplace. Advocates of the pilot have argued that a shorter week could be a magnet for untapped parts of the country’s labor market.  

“I’m absolutely convinced that investments in ‘new work’ pay off because they increase well-being and motivation, subsequently increasing efficiency,” Sören Fricke, co-founder of Stuttgart-based event planning company Solidsense, which is participating in the pilot project, told the outlet. “The four-day week, if it works, won’t cost us anything either in the long run.”

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