A Four-Day Workweek Might Boost Productivity, But Do Indians Deserve a Three-Day Weekend?

Social Commentary

A Four-Day Workweek Might Boost Productivity, But Do Indians Deserve a Three-Day Weekend?

Illustration: Hitesh Sonar

In November 2019 a headline made for social media broke the internet. “Microsoft Japan tested a four-day work week and productivity jumped by 40%,” it announced. Predictably, it led many of us jaded runners in the rat race to make announcements about how if our bosses made us work less, we’d all be similarly better off. For a moment, Twitter seemed flooded with snarky comments about current working conditions and jibes at HR. But while nobody can blame the frustrated employees of India Inc for letting off a little steam, I believe the reality is that a three-day weekend would be wasted on the corporate Indian workforce.

Before I get hate mail from people who were already planning their long weekend in Goa, let’s all just calm down a little bit. To dumb down this experiment to “productivity is inversely proportional to hours put in” would be a gross oversimplification – and wrong. It’s not as if a cap on working hours is going to lead to a corporate utopia. Beyond the headline, there are two major takeaways: (1) Working efficiently is more important than just working long hours, and (2) Meetings suck

Basically, a shortened workweek means nothing by itself — structurally, there need to be changes to make the time spent in office more efficient. I ran a small Twitter poll about how much “actual work” people feel they do while in the office. While hardly a scientific approach, the responses look like they’re fairly representative of the average white-collar worker in Indian metros: Meaningful work takes up 20 to 50 per cent of their time, with politics/justifying work/pointless meetings taking up the rest. There’s plenty of literature (and workshops) out there on how to possibly make time spent in office more productive, so I won’t get into those.

What I do want to address is the other part of the week — the weekend itself — and how we disrespect it, employers and employees alike.

A decade ago, when I was doing my MBA, I went to visit a friend at the most premier institute of them all, IIM Ahmedabad. Given what I’d heard about the place, I expected to find a campus full of people running around all day with their heads buried in books. While I did see that, I also saw a thriving music club, of which my friend was a part. I asked him how they managed to get the time to do this, and he said, “When you slog like that for six days a week, you really learn to value the free time that you have.” 

That thought stuck with me, and was echoed by one of my favourite Indian humorists, Krish Ashok, in his TEDx talk, when he said, “I work very hard for my free time.” Friends living in Western Europe — a region famed for its work-life balance — tell me that people at work are super-focused (no time-wasting chit-chat and stuff) and then when they’re out of the office, they’re out of the office.

I feel we, as a culture, don’t respect work-life balance, and by extension, the much-needed weekend.

Those little anecdotes are to illustrate my point — I feel we, as a culture, don’t respect work-life balance, and by extension, the much-needed weekend. Why, this has been a defect from childhood itself, where any semblance of free time would be filled in by tuition or IIT coaching (ugh). Once, in a previous agency job, the hiring manager was livid because a young candidate asked whether the company had a one- or two-day weekend. I fail to see why that was an inappropriate question — I’m 35 and I would still wonder that were I to interview somewhere tomorrow. It’s not like people are averse to work, but they also need time to unwind and, y’know, gather all those “different perspectives” that the advertising industry prides itself on harbouring.

We have an unhealthy obsession with the optics of “hard work” (it’s even better than Harvard, haven’t you heard?), something that’s newly legitimised by Silicon Valley’s hustle culture. The lines between work and non-work hours have long been blurred, and that’s a bad thing. To be honest, a three-day weekend in India would be pretty pointless unless the remaining four days are utilised well, and we stop glorifying long work hours. I’ve worked in advertising, an industry synonymous with mad hours, for close to a decade, and I can testify that most of the work we did could have been done in half the time. I once posted a pic of an empty office at 10.30 am on Instagram, and a friend from the UK responded that if this were the case where he was, there’d be some people out on the streets.

There’s this famous saying that work expands to fill time. Now, the problem is that time itself is expanding to fill all available time. What with email, work WhatsApp groups, and what we all love to hate now, Slack, we’re tethered to the office long before we’ve done that biometric checkout. 

Some countries have identified this as an issue and were mature enough to institute changes, but it’s unlikely such a conversation will find its way to India. And, to be honest, it might not be the right time either, given we have bigger issues with respect to employment and education

The other fault, honestly, lies with us workers. As much as we may blame our bosses for imposing on our weekends, that will continue unless we respect time off ourselves. When I was in advertising, I put my foot down about not carrying work home on Saturday and Sunday, sometimes going to insane lengths of slogging through the week, and often made it known that I’d be out for a trek or something, and stuff could wait until Monday. It was only social media marketing, not cardiac surgery.

I feel that if we start to have more purpose to the weekend other than actually whiling our time away desultorily, we would automatically work harder on the other days so work doesn’t spill over. Only then will a three-day weekend make sense, otherwise it’ll be like asking for a large pizza when you can’t even finish a medium one.