The Heseltine Institute for Public Policy, Practice and Place at the University of Liverpool just published “Transitioning Towards a Four Day Working Week: Evidence Review and Insights From Praxis,” a report about the potential benefits of a 4-day week for the greater Liverpool City Region. It’s written by Institute fellow Mark Swift, and was inspired partly by Swift’s own experience leading a reduction in working hours at social enterprise business Wellbeing Enterprises.

For me, there are a couple notable things about the report. First, while we usually talk about the relative importance of government policies or corporate strategy in moving the 4-day week forward, the report argues that

Third sector organisations… in the Liverpool City Region (LCR) can also lead by example. COVID-19 has caused a pivot in working practices, with anecdotal evidence from ongoing praxis suggesting that compressing the working week with a small reduction in working hours is having multiple benefits.

Swift elaborates later:

In my organisation, Wellbeing Enterprises, a health and wellbeing social enterprise based in Halton, the COVID-19 crisis has led to a pivot in working practices to accommodate the evolving needs and aspirations of citizens, while at the same time responding to those of our workforce. A small reduction in working hours (without reducing pay) alongside a transition to a compressed working week (which was unanimously supported by staff) means the organisation is now able to remain open for longer periods of the day (providing extended access to support), while also providing staff with an additional day free each week to enable better work / life balance….

It is early days in our pilot, yet already there is anecdotal evidence that compressing the working week with a small reduction in working hours is yielding benefits. For example, staff appear more engaged in problem-solving activities and many have shared stories of the impact that changing working practices are having on their lives – most notably by providing more time for them to spend with loved ones, and helping them to feel more rested….

Reflecting on my experiences as a social entrepreneur, a transition to a shorter working week enables Wellbeing Enterprises to demonstrate social value in its means and its ends. The organisation’s mission (“ends”) is to improve health and wellbeing in the community. By reducing working hours, this enhances the wellbeing of the workforce, which is an important “means” through which we enhance wellbeing in the community. In essence, we can more effectively embody the change we want to see in the world.

Looking at it just as an artifact, the report, and indeed the entire series of COVID-19 policy briefs (which are described as written “to help mitigate the present health crisis and its social, economic and environmental aftershocks, as well as think anew about how we might Build Back Better to create a more resilient Liverpool City Region in the future”), show how the 4-day week is starting to become part of the conversation about sustainability, economic development, and the reinvention of capitalism– essentially becoming another potential tool or policy, like universal basic income or other parts of the Green New Deal.

It’s also another straw in the wind indicating just how broad a sense there is that the pandemic, lockdown, and restart (and now potentially a new swine flu outbreak) is breaking loose the superstructure of practices, assumptions, and limitations that have kept many companies from thinking seriously about working from home, remote working, or redesigning the workweek and adopting a 4-day week. Managers who previous saw remote work as a hill to die on have seen their workforces go remote and digital under very stressful circumstances; managing directors who would have been held back from making big changes because they thought their customers would never go for it have seen supply chains and demand disrupted, and new buying habits and sourcing emerge quickly; and HR leaders have seen how adaptable many of their employees are.

This pandemic has arrived in the midst of an ongoing conversation about how to fix the problems with globalization and neoliberal capitalism. Even before this hit, smart people were talking about stubborn problems with income inequality, gender imbalances, work-life balance, sustainability, aging workforces (and ageism in hiring), and the downsides of a gig economy that maximizes profits for the system and its owners by maximizing instability for workers. The COVID pandemic just threw all this into high relief, and has given us a glimpse of a future in which we can start to fix these things.