More than a century after Chicago factory workers won fixed labor protections under the slogan “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours for what we will,” the work week is once again evolving. 

Companies have recently been experimenting with four-day weeks in the hope that a shorter week will ultimately improve their bottom lines. But the concept broke new ground last month, when Spain announced it will become the world’s first country to trial a four-day working week. The three-year, €50 million ($USD60 million) pilot project will launch in September.

Under the plans, an estimated 200 to 400 Spanish companies will voluntarily take part in the project by reducing their employees’ working week to 32 hours while keeping their salaries the same. The government will compensate participating businesses for any higher costs incurred by the changes, such as the need to hire additional staff or to reorganize scheduling and shift patterns. That investment will be financed through Spain’s share of the EU Coronavirus Recovery Fund.

“The four-day week has never been tested on this level,” says Héctor Tejero, political coordinator of Más País, the left-wing party that put forward the proposal. “Until now there’s only been fragmented evidence and research from different countries.”

Tejero believes the benefits of shifting away from the Monday to Friday, 9-to-5 status quo could be profound and wide-ranging: improving employee wellbeing, reducing carbon emissions, increasing gender equality and raising productivity.

“The key is flexibility,” he adds. “Some workers might prefer to have four days, or others might prefer to spread their 32 hours of work across five days. What’s important is that the idea has been put on the political agenda.”

Spain has long been a pioneer when it comes to labor reform. In 1593, King Philip II of Spain established an eight-hour work day by a royal edict. In 1919, strikes in Barcelona led to Spain becoming the first country in the world to introduce a maximum eight-hour working day. More recently, the tech firm Software Delsol last year became the country’s first to implement a four-day week.

Preliminary evidence of the impact of the four-day week is already promising. In 2019, Microsoft Japan said that after allowing employees to work for four days a week rather than five, productivity grew by 40 percent, electricity use was down 23 percent and 92 percent of employees said they were happier. Spain’s Software Delsol, which invested €400,000 (USD$483,000) in a four-day week by hiring more employees and buying new technology, reported that absenteeism dropped 28 percent, revenues have grown at the same rate and none of the company’s 189 employees has left since the plan went into effect. 

But campaigners have hailed the Spanish government’s pilot as something altogether new – a nationwide, government-backed initiative aimed more at improving public health than profits. They see it as a watershed that could have impacts around the world, and argue it’s more important than ever since the internet has blurred the work-life distinction – a trend accelerated by the pandemic.

“This is a reckoning for the five-day week,” says Joe Ryle of the 4 Day Week Campaign, a U.K.-based advocacy group.  “The 9-to-5 is an outdated model based on industrial, agricultural economies from the 1940s. The world of work has completely changed since then.”

Ryle points to the theories of English economist John Maynard Keynes, who argued that the ever-increasing efficiency of industrialized societies should result in more leisure time for citizens. “But we haven’t had a substantial reduction in working hours for decades,” he says. “The world should learn from this.”

Following Spain’s announcement, other nations have already begun to get on board. Scottish Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon has announced that if re-elected when the country goes to the polls on May 6, she will introduce a £10m (USD$13.9 million) fund “to allow companies to pilot and explore the benefits of a four-day working week.”

But the four-day work week does have some critics, who point out that it will be difficult to implement in sectors like the hospitality industry, which is one of Spain’s largest employers and known for long, erratic working hours. 

“The four-day week will be more difficult to implement in some sectors,” admits Ryle. “But we believe governments should subsidize any costs incurred. It’s a win-win for workers and employers.”