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How Germany is trialling the four day working week

Imogen Goodman
Imogen Goodman - [email protected]
How Germany is trialling the four day working week
An employee works through a warehouse in Baden-Württenberg. picture alliance/dpa | Silas Stein

After a similar pilot project in the UK, several companies in Germany are launching a trial of the four-day week starting February.

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What's going on?

From trials in the UK and Portugal to new legislation allowing a four-day week in Belgium, several countries around Europe have been embracing the idea of shorter working hours.

Until this month, however, Germany appeared to be dragging its feet. 

But on February 1st, the non-profit organisation '4 Day Week Global' and business consultancy Intraprenör will kick of a major six-month project to test if the four-day week could be a viable model for companies in Germany. 

Though different models exist for the four-day week, the concept aims to find a working schedule that gives employees more time to focus on their private lives, while boosting their health, job satisfaction and well-being. 

In Belgium, this involves working longer hours to condense a full week of work into just four days.

However, the model being trialed in Germany foresees employees working fewer hours for the same pay, provided they can maintain their current productivity.

READ ALSO: Do Germans really have a perfect work-life balance?

It follows the principle used in a similar trial in the UK last year, known as the 100-80-100 principle. In practice, this means receiving 100 percent of the pay for 80 percent of the working hours, with 100 percent of the previous output.  

Who's involved in the pilot project?

According to the project organisers, 45 businesses are taking part in the trial across a range of different industries and sectors. 

The largest group of companies is in the IT sector (14 percent), followed by consulting firms (12 percent), companies from the retail and catering sectors (11 percent) and property and construction companies (10 percent).

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In terms of regions, most of the trial participants come from North Rhine-Westphalia (30 percent), Baden-Württemberg (17 percent) and Bavaria (16 percent).

Notably, the vast majority of companies taking part are smaller organisations: companies with up to 49 employees make up 54 percent of trial participants, while participation among large companies is low. 

According to Intraprenör, that's simply because bigger firms need much more time to organise an alternative working schedule, making it trickier for them to take part in the trial.  

Why is everyone talking about the four-day week?

Whether it's flexible working hours or remote working, the past years have seen a major reckoning with the status quo of full-time employment.

In a recent poll conducted by the trade-union affiliated Hans Böckler Stiftung, 81 percent of respondents said they wanted to switch to a four-day working week, while 73 percent said they wanted to work shorter hours - but only for the same pay.

This desire for a better work-life balance has also been reflected in recent trade union negotiations in Germany. 

IG metall union demo

A member of the IG Metall union holds a sign that states "Steel is the future" at a demo in Lower Saxony for reduced working hours and better pay. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Friso Gentsch

IG Metall - the largest union in Germany representing the steel industry - is currently fighting for a 32-hour work week, having previously negotiated their working hours down to 35. 

The GDL train drivers' union is also battling for a reduction in working hours, insisting on a 35-hour work week for the same pay. 

So far, Deutsche Bahn have been reticent on the issue, citing current worker shortages and logistical issues. But GDL boss Claus Weselsky has turned this argument around, saying shorter working hours would help fix labour shortages by making the job more attractive.

READ ALSO: Is a four-day working week possible in Germany?

What happened in previous trials? 

In the UK trial that ended last February, the experiment was hailed as a "breakthrough moment", with 56 of 61 of the companies choosing to continue with the four-day working week after the trial ended.

At the end of the study, employees were feeling healthier and more balanced, while productivity had even increased in spite of the shorter working hours.

Delving into the result of the trial, researchers from Cambridge and Boston also found that 40 percent of the some 3,000 participants reported feeling less stressed, while resignations decreased by around 57 percent over the six-month period.

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This appears to bolster the argument that a better work/life balance can boost motivation and lead to better business results. 

However, critics have argued that the self-selecting trials are a biased sample, and that a four-day work week works better in some industries than others.

One prime example of this would be the train drivers. Though workers may feel more relaxed and motivated with shorter working hours, they can still only drive one train at a time, meaning productivity would fall if employees worked less.

Could the four-day model be expanded in future?

If the latest trial in Germany is a success, many of the trial participants could choose to adopt the four-day week in the long term, while other companies could decide to run their own pilot schemes for employees.

Meanwhile, as unions focus more on working hours than boosting their pay packets, we could see a string of new collective agreements where workers are given shorter working weeks for the same amount of pay. 

Pictured is a home office set up.
A laptop, schedule and cup of coffee on a work desk. Photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash

That said, Germany is a long way away from regulating for a four-day work week on a government level - and the Ministry for Labour says there are currently no plans to do so.

READ ALSO: Could Germany introduce a four-day working week for employees?

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"The introduction of a statutory four-day week is not planned in Germany," a spokesperson for the ministry told The Local.

"The Basic Law leaves decisions on the organisation of working hours to the parties to collective agreements and the respective employment contracts.

"These are free to make their own decisions in this regard, subject to the provisions of the Working Hours Act." 

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