Could AI lead to a four-day week?

With a study predicting projected productivity gains from artificial intelligence could reduce the working week, People Management looks at the pros and cons

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Artificial intelligence could lead to a four-day week without sacrificing performance or pay, research has suggested. 

According to the study, conducted by UK think tank Autonomy, projected productivity improvements from the implementation of AI may lower the working week from 40 to 32 hours for more than a quarter (28 per cent) of the workforce, or 8.8 million people. 

Autonomy found that, if large language models such as ChatGPT are adopted into workplaces, 27.9 million workers – or the majority (88 per cent) of the workforce – may have their workload cut by at least 10 per cent. 

This recommendation comes amid numerous reports noting increased absenteeism, resignations and reduced productivity as a result of burnout.

Joe Ryle, director of the 4 Day Week Campaign, says: “The study, published alongside a similar study in the US, set out to understand the possibility of productivity-enhancing AI being utilised to shorten the working week in Great Britain, while maintaining pay and performance.

“Such a policy offers the possibility of avoiding mass unemployment, reducing widespread mental health illnesses as well as physical ailments associated with overwork and creating masses of free time for democracy, leisure consumption and social cohesion in general.”

People Management asked HR experts for their views on whether AI could cut our working hours – and on how long (if at all) it will be before it comes for our jobs entirely.

Gary Cookson, director of Epic HR, says that, at the very least, the projected productivity gains are probable. “One of the big barriers to achieving a reduced working week is the difficulty in achieving the productivity gains with existing human resources, so bringing AI in to realise those gains will certainly free up people’s time and hopefully maintain levels of pay,” he says. 

Cookson adds that AI will be successful in decreasing the working week since it can reduce it greatly in specific jobs. 

He also says that, while AI will severely disrupt labour and replace many occupations, it seems unlikely that it will "render work obsolete", adding that doing so would require a fundamental reimagining of our global economy and what the labour market is: “Currently people work in exchange for money. If AI does the work, who pays the AI? And where do people get their money from? We aren’t ready as a society to address those issues.”

Gemma Dale, lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University, says: “There are good things to be said in general about the potential of a four-day week, but there are concerns that it can result in work intensification, where people cram five days' work into four, which has negative health impacts.

“If AI is going to reduce that possibility that is potentially a good thing. However, there are some real caveats here.

“Employers tend to do what is best for them financially. If they can use AI to improve productivity, what would stop them from just simply reducing the overall workforce rather than embracing the four-day week?”

Idris Arshad, people and inclusion partner at St Christopher's Hospice, says the influence of AI differs by industry, with some already deploying and others not, therefore he is not shocked by the findings. However, he says it all boils down to “leadership appetite”.

“If they are digitally, technologically competent, AI will be introduced at pace,” says Arshad. “Initiatives tend to go at pace and not in a measured way. So I think it will disproportionately affect jobs in those industries where AI is introduced, not just by a small margin.” 

He adds that the leadership teams that are not as digitally and technologically savvy may delay their use and are more likely to approach it cautiously, which could encourage a four-day week.

However, Arshad notes that the goal of adding AI will be “efficiency” rather than fostering flexible working, so we could see that saved time is used for other responsibilities.

Dale says the issue about AI taking jobs is “a difficult one”, adding: “New technologies have always reshaped the labour market, making some jobs obsolete and creating new ones. The idea that robots will take our jobs has continued for hundreds of years and will likely continue in the future.

“What we do know is that some of these fears are grounded in reality – while some jobs disappear and others come along, they are not always comparable jobs and can result in a downgrading of pay and terms and conditions.”

Exploring the report 

The Autonomy study, which compiled data generated by merging information from the UK Census and the Annual Population Survey, also indicates that many local authorities have the opportunity to become the first four-day organisations. It says these include 44 local authorities that could have at least a third of their labour force eligible for a four-day working week by 2033.

The report says in London 89 per cent of the labour force could have at least a 10 per cent reduction in work time as a result of AI-led productivity gains – amounting to four million workers in 2033. 

It adds: “This is a paper that identifies an opportunity and not a destiny. The actual diffusion and adoption of technology is always uneven, driven by a variety of factors: wage levels, government policy, levels of sector monopolisation, trade union density and so on. 

“Needless to say, widespread adoption of these new AI technologies will require a robust industrial strategy that traverses national, federal and municipal levels and that deploys incentives and regulations for the private sector.

“Most importantly, workplace technologies are social and political technologies, and therefore worker voice – those who will be working alongside and in collaboration with these tools – will be essential.”