27 Feb 2024

AI could make the four-day work week inevitable

7:40 am on 27 February 2024
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Photo: mihtiander/123RF

As artificial intelligence gains traction in office operations, some companies are giving employees a day to step back.

Working four days while getting paid for five is a dream for many employees. Yet the dramatic shifts in the pandemic-era workplace have turned this once unfathomable idea into a reality for some workers. And as more global data emerges, an increasing number of companies are courting the approach after positive trial-run results across countries including the UK, Iceland, Portugal and more.

Now, as pilots continue - in Germany, a trial of 45 companies has just begun, for instance - another factor has entered the mix. Artificial intelligence (AI) is gathering pace in the workplace, and some experts believe it could accelerate the adoption of the four-day work week.

Data from London-based news-and-events resource Tech.co collected in late 2023 lends credence to this idea. For their 2024 Impact of Technology on the Workplace, the company surveyed more than 1000 US business leaders. The researchers found 29 percent of organisations with four-day work weeks use AI extensively in their firms' operations, implementing generative AI tools such as ChatGPT as well as other programmes to streamline operations. In comparison, only 8 percent of five-day working week organisations use AI to this extent. And 93 percent of businesses using AI are open to a four-day work week, whereas for those who do not, fewer than half are open to working shorter weeks.

At London-based digital design agency Driftime, adopting AI technology has been crucial to enable the business to operate a flexible four-day work week. "By handing over simple tasks to AI tools, we gain invaluable time previously lost to slow aspects of the process," said co-founder Abb-d Taiyo. "With tools like Modyfi, the graphics are all live and modifiable, making it so much easier and quicker for our designers to create concepts and ideas."

Taiyo believes it makes sense for both his employees and his bottom line to work the condensed week. "Instead of a dip in the quantity of work created over just four days, we've seen a remarkably high quality of work matched by a high staff satisfaction return. The health and happiness of our team is in direct correlation to the high standard of work produced," he says.

Shayne Simpson, group managing director of UK-based TechNET IT Recruitment, also believes AI has been fundamental to the success of the company's four-day work week policy. The firm has found AI tools save each of their recruitment consultants 21 hours per week, primarily by automating previously manual tasks like data input, confirmation emails, resume screening and candidate outreach. This has reduced the time to fill permanent roles at the company by an average of 10 days. "This timesaving allows our team to achieve their weekly goals earlier in the week and the flexibility liberates our consultants from being tethered to their desks, enabling them to enjoy a well-deserved Friday off," said Simpson.

Not only has the company's abridged work week boosted productivity and morale, Simpson said it has also been key to attracting talent to work within the company itself. "Seasoned recruitment professionals are enticed by our streamlined processes while entry-level talent is eager to embrace new tools." It has lifted the entire business, he added.

While AI tools are certainly paving the way for a four-day work week within some industries, the technology cannot usher in the change alone. Organisational culture within a business is also fundamental, said Na Fu, a professor in human resource management at Trinity Business School, Ireland. "An openness to innovative work structures, an experimental mindset and, importantly, a culture grounded in high levels of trust are all important for the four-day work week to be successfully adopted," she said.

As the digital transformation with AI progresses, employees themselves also must be willing to level up, she adds: "Rather than becoming mere caretakers or servants of machines, human workers need to develop new skills that can leverage, complement and lead AI, achieving the enhanced outcomes."

Some industries will benefit from AI more than others, however - notably those who are able to use generative AI tools for such tasks including software development, content creation, marketing and legal services, said Fu. Plus, artificial intelligence development still has a way to go if it is to substantially reduce human working hours across the board.

What may drive the shift to a four-day work week in an AI-powered business landscape may not ultimately be up to the robots, however. Executive buy-in is required, and whether leaders will embrace the unconventional concept will vary depending on a firm's overarching purpose and values, said Fu. Instead of letting AI supplement the work of humans, for instance, some businesses could use it to automate certain tasks while piling other work on employees to fill newly open hours.

Still, despite some reservation, an increasing number of business leaders - including those from some of the world's highest-earning companies - see a technology-driven shortened work week as an inevitable future. In October 2023, JPMorgan Chase & Co CEO Jamie Dimon told Bloomberg TV: "Your children are going to live to 100, and they'll probably be working three-and-a-half days a week." Employees will have to wait and see.

This story was originally published by the BBC.

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