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How France learned to embrace the four-day week

Awareness of the environmental benefits is among the drivers for change, which could see one in 10 French firms adopt the practice in the next decade

Switching to a four-day work week has been a great success for many French companies for both employers and employees Pic: Dmitry Demidovich / Shutterstock

More companies in France are trying out four-day working weeks, joining those who have already adopted it as a solution to the 35-hour week voted into law 22 years ago. 

Around five per cent of companies say they are now moving to four days, or will do so soon, a survey by ADP, specialists in employment software, showed. 

‘Environmental awareness’

“One of the new drivers is environmental awareness,” said Isabelle Rey-Millet, a lecturer at Essec, a prestigious French business school, who also runs a management consultancy called EthiKonsulting. 

“Companies and their employees realise that just by not commuting to work on one day of the week, their environmental footprint is improved.” 

She said the idea of the four-day week, once considered outrageous, is now firmly established as an alternative, and she expects more firms will take the step, possibly rising to one in 10 in the next decade. 

“It isn’t something that can be done easily but most workers like it,” she said. 

“One of the main obstacles is the French work culture of ‘being present’, where managers judge people on their being at work and under control, more than on actual productivity.” 

The switch could take different forms, from companies where employees work 32-hour four-day weeks but are paid for 35 hours, or 35-hour weeks but worked over four days. 

Increased productivity

Ms Rey-Millet said the pay-off is increased productivity, giving the example of a plumbing business she knows, where staff now work 35 hours over four days. 

“Workers were doing two jobs, ending at 14:00 and not having enough time to go on to another job before knocking off at 17:00,” she said. 

“Making the switch meant workers could move from fitting one or two heat pumps a day to three or four, and also benefit from a three-day weekend.” 

Lyon-based IT Partner, a digital engineering and services provider with 60 employees, made the change two years ago. 

Its president, Abdénour Aïn-Séba, told The Connexion: “It is something I had thought about and it fitted with a management system we have developed over a decade or so, with autonomous or semi-autonomous teams who do a lot of the administration themselves. 

“After the first Covid lockdown, we decided we had to change and so we moved to the four-day week. 

‘Homeworking does not suit’

For us, homeworking does not suit, except in occasional circumstances.” 

Teams rotate their days off every three months to avoid one person getting the coveted Friday off all the time. 

They work an extra half-hour by taking just an hour for lunch rather than 90 minutes, and do not take RTTs (réduction du temps de travail, or time off in lieu), enabling salaries to stay the same. 

“For most people, it is nothing but good news and they make full use of the time off, although one or two say they do not know what to do with themselves,” said Mr Aïn-Séba. 

He admitted that the change had not been without problems, but he is pleased that staff are now more productive, paying greater attention to planning, deadlines and teamwork to make the most of their time. 

The firm also invested in new technology to facilitate the switch to shorter weeks. 

‘It’s a real motivator’

“Above all, it is a real motivator. Our workers are pleased to tell people about it and, even after two years, they remain full of enthusiasm.” 

The firm has recently taken over two other companies and slowly plans to convert these to a four-day system too. 

“You cannot do it overnight: just say we work four days now and add 20% to bills to compensate. The world is not like that,” he said. 

The 35-hour working week was part of a labour law reform adopted in France in 2000, which aimed to lower the unemployment rate, then at a record high of 12.5%, by encouraging the creation of jobs with work-sharing. 

The legislation brought opportunities for firms to renegotiate work contracts and some moved to four-day systems in the subsequent shake-up. 

Many vineyards, for example, switched to a mainly four-day week, especially in the summer when field workers can work until 18:00 or 19:00 outside in daylight, and have Fridays off. 

One benefit is that it allows tractors to spray pesticides on the Friday, knowing there are no workers in the fields. 

Wages are calculated on the basis of the 35 legal hours per week. 

France is not alone

France is not alone in gradually embracing the move to four-day working weeks. 

In Britain, a number of call centres have moved to this system and a formal six-month trial involving 70 companies and around 3,000 workers ended in December. 

Rather than cramming five days of work into four, the pilot scheme saw workers earn 100% salary for 80% of the hours they would normally do, with the aim of being more productive. 

Results are due early this year.

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