In a year still marked by the pandemic and by its impact on employment, there is an ongoing public debate in Spain regarding the possibility of reducing working time to 4 days a week.
At the beginning of 2021 the Government promised the political party Más País to perform a social experiment aimed at having 200 volunteer companies test a pilot project for a 4-day or 32-hour work week, earmarking 50 million euros in aid for those companies.
There are as many in favor of the project as there are against it, but the fact is that, to date, it continues to be in a very preliminary phase, and it does not appear that the generalized modification of the work week will be a very feasible option on the short term.
Pursuant to article 34 of the Workers’ Statute, the length of the work week is to be determined in collective labor agreements or employment contracts, subject to a maximum of 40 hours per week of actual work on the average, computed annually.
The reference to collective bargaining is precisely the request of employers, who are generally opposed to the aforesaid measure in view of the current context of economic crisis and slow recovery.
Nonetheless, labor unions and certain experts make a case for moving the matter forward, based on claims that a reduced work week would serve as a powerful instrument to improve the productivity of employees and, ultimately, employers, by increasing employee wellbeing and favoring a work-life balance. It is also presented as a measure that would reduce absenteeism and help to retain talent at companies.
There have already been many practical experiments resulting in very positive data, according to their promoters. Most notable is the case of Iceland, which very recently published the findings of an experiment in which 2,800 Icelandic public officials have been working reduced hours since 2015 and which, as concluded by the groups of experts that analyzed the tests, has been a great success, given that productivity and the provision of services was upheld or even improved at most of the workplaces included in the experiment.
Similar experiments have also been performed in the private sector, for example at Unilever, in New Zealand, where employees were given the opportunity to reduce their hours by 20% without any reduction in salary, or at Microsoft, in Japan, where productivity is said to have improved by up to 40% in the case of 2,300 employees.
Spanish companies, such as Telefónica, have decided to try this type of measure by launching the “semana flexible bonificada” (“bonus flexible week”) (a flexible 4-day work week partially subsidized by the company), but in this case the reduction of the work week to 4 days entails a proportional salary reduction, borne in part by the company, which also offers the possibility of working from home two days a week.
It is difficult to predict whether all these measures will have a global impact on the corporate world as a whole, but we must not forget that there are many industries in which they would be difficult to implement. Furthermore, SMEs predominate in Spain, which makes it much more complicated for companies to adapt in order to continue offering the same level of service and quality.
The most realistic course would seem to be to encourage measures aimed at increasing the flexibility of working time while progressively reducing the hours worked, with a view to bringing Spain into line, on the medium term, with the hours worked in the rest of Europe, taking advantage of digital improvements, the increase in work from home and the irregular distribution of working time, thus enabling the employer to balance its own interests with those of its employees.
We will keep an eye on the political decisions made in the coming months, with a view to ascertaining whether 3-day weekends continue to be a utopia or, on the contrary, are a real possibility.