Rise of ro­bots ‘could see four-day weeks be­come the norm’

Ben­e­fits of au­to­ma­tion must be passed on to staff, says think­tank

The Observer - - News - Michael Sav­age Pol­icy Ed­i­tor

A four-day work­ing week could be­come com­mon­place in Bri­tain as au­to­ma­tion and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence in­crease work­place ef­fi­ciency, a new study has con­cluded.

If the ben­e­fits of rolling out such new tech­nolo­gies were passed on to staff, then they would be able to gen­er­ate their cur­rent weekly eco­nomic out­put in just four days. The re­search, by the cross-party So­cial Mar­ket Foun­da­tion (SMF) think­tank, found that even rel­a­tively mod­est gains from us­ing ro­bots and AI had the po­ten­tial to give Bri­tish work­ers Scan­di­na­vian lev­els of leisure time.

The con­clu­sions of the study will come as a boost to John McDon­nell, the shadow chan­cel­lor, who wants to look at re­duc­ing hours in the work­ing week. TUC gen­eral sec­re­tary Frances O’Grady used her speech to the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s an­nual gath­er­ing last month to call for a four-day work­ing week, say­ing that it should be achiev­able by the end of the cen­tury.

While Labour is pri­ori­tis­ing poli­cies to deal with the in­se­cu­ri­ties of the gig econ­omy in its next man­i­festo, McDon­nell told the Ob­server:

“We are in­ter­ested in the TUC’s pro­pos­als in how the ben­e­fits of au­to­ma­tion, ro­bot­ics and AI of the fourth in­dus­trial rev­o­lu­tion are shared with the work­ers, both in re­wards and po­ten­tially a shorter work­ing week. Work-life bal­ance is in­creas­ingly com­ing on to so­ci­ety’s agenda.”

Bri­tish em­ploy­ees cur­rently work longer hours on av­er­age than most of their Eu­ro­pean coun­ter­parts, while at the same time the UK has seen a slump in pro­duc­tiv­ity. The typ­i­cal Bri­tish worker spends 42 hours a week at work but pro­duces 16% less on av­er­age than coun­ter­parts in other lead­ing economies, ac­cord­ing to the Of­fice for Na­tional Sta­tis­tics.

The SMF anal­y­sis sug­gests that a 10% gain in work­force pro­duc­tiv­ity could al­low em­ploy­ers to pro­duce the same out­put with a 38-hour week, as­sum­ing pay and em­ployer prof­its re­mained the same. It would give Bri­tish em­ploy­ees the same work­ing week that Nor­we­gians and Danes cur­rently en­joy. A 30% pro­duc­tiv­ity gain could al­low the work­ing week to fall to just 32 hours, or a stan­dard four-day work­ing week.

While new tech­nolo­gies could bring eco­nomic re­wards for em­ploy­ers, the SMF also warned that without the right govern­ment poli­cies the work­force may not see any ben­e­fits.

It called for big com­pa­nies to be re­quired to re­port their av­er­age profit per em­ployee and to show how this is chang­ing rel­a­tive to wages. It also called on chan­cel­lor Philip Ham­mond to use his bud­get at the end of this month to give tax breaks to work­ers try­ing to im­prove their skills.

Scott Corfe, the SMF’s chief econ­o­mist who au­thored the re­port, said: “Ro­bots, AI and big data could dra­mat­i­cally change so­ci­ety for the bet­ter, ad­dress­ing the UK’s pro­duc­tiv­ity cri­sis and cre­at­ing more en­joy­able work as mun­dane tasks are au­to­mated. If we man­age this rev­o­lu­tion prop­erly, work­ers will get new choices, in­clud­ing whether to re­duce their work­ing week and hav­ing more leisure time.

“How­ever, it also brings chal­lenges. Some firms are us­ing new tech­nolo­gies to mi­cro­man­age and mon­i­tor ev­ery move­ment of staff – in­clud­ing how long they spend in the toi­let. We need to en­sure that tech­nol­ogy is rolled out in an eth­i­cal way that main­tains the dig­nity of work, and that work­ers are prop­erly con­sulted.”

Ro­bots, such as Pep­per at Mid­dle­sex Univer­sity, can free up work­forces.

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