Is it time the UK switched to a four-day week?
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Covid-19 and the climate crisis are shining a spotlight on the need to rethink the how, when and where we work. Could a shorter working week be the key to unlocking both higher productivity and a better work-life balance?
In the UK, a cross-party group of UK MPs urged the chancellor in June 2020 to consider a four-day working week to help the economy recover from the Covid-19 crisis, reduce stress, boost mental health, and improve productivity. Scotland, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Spain, and New Zealand are just a few other countries considering a similar move.
Iceland was among the first countries to trial the four-day week. Considered an “overwhelming success”, the scheme was run by Reykjavík City Council and the national government from 2015-2019. Many of the employers – mainly public services – moved from a 40-hour week to a 35- or 36-hour week. The successful trials eventually led unions to renegotiate working patterns, and now 86% of Iceland’s workforce have either moved to shorter hours for the same pay, or will soon gain the right to. So, would this model work for the UK?
4 Day Week Campaign
In June 2022, some UK employers will be implementing a pilot scheme led by the 4 Day Week Campaign and researchers at Oxford University, Boston College, and Cambridge University. Those participating in the scheme are being asked to maintain 100 per cent productivity in just 80 per cent of the usual working time given, that staff will have an additional day off each week. The aim is to study the impact of shorter working hours on businesses’ productivity and the wellbeing of their workers, as well as the impact on the environment and gender equality. Currently, the 4 Day Week Campaign aims to recruit 30 UK companies to take part in this scheme.
“The four-day week challenges the current model of work and helps companies move away from simply measuring how long people are ‘at work’, to a sharper focus on the output being produced,” said Joe O’Connor, manager of the pilot scheme for 4 Day Week Global.
And it appears that working days are getting longer to make up for this constant stream of interruptions and notifications. In the UK, employees work four more hours than a Danish worker in a typical a week and seven more hours than the typical worker in the Netherlands – leading to more instances of stress, exhaustion and workplace burnout. Meanwhile, the 2020 Modern Families Index has found that 44% of UK parents check their email, or do other work, at night – with three-quarters of these parents feeling they had ‘no choice’ but to put in extra time at home. Could the four-day working week really be the answer to all these modern problems?
Examples from around the world
Early pilot schemes suggest that switching to a four-day week could bring real benefits. In Microsoft Japan’s Work-Life Choice Challenge Summer 2019, its entire 2,300-person workforce was given five Fridays off in a row without decreased pay. The project also included a ban on meetings of longer than 30 minutes and employees were urged to cut down the amount of time they spent responding to emails. This experiment led to more efficient meetings, happier workers and boosted productivity by 40%, the company reported. It also said that employees took 25% less time off during the trial, and that 92% of employees liked the shorter week. It claimed there were environmental benefits, too: electricity use fell by 23%, and 59% fewer pages of paper were printed.
In March 2021, the Spanish government announced its intention to pilot a four-day work week for employers interested in the idea. Two companies, software developer Software DELSOL and software manufacturer CIB Group, became Spain’s first businesses to adopt a 36-hour week without reducing workers’ pay. Both companies reported a drop in absenteeism during working hours and a boost in talent attraction. According to Ana Arroyo, head of people selection and development at Software DELSOL, sales have been growing by 20% annually since the four-day week was adopted.
Smaller companies have also enjoyed success with shorter working weeks. In New Zealand, a four-day week trial was conducted at financial services firm Perpetual Guardian in March and April 2018, with the aim of improving productivity and helping employees better manage their lives. It reported that work standards remained up to scratch, teamwork and employee engagement increased, and stress levels fell. As a result of the trial, the company has permanently adopted a four-day week.
Andrew Barnes, the founder of Perpetual Guardian says: “It’s not just having a day off a week – it’s about delivering productivity, meeting customer service standards, meeting personal and team business goals and objectives.”
Could a four-day work week be implemented across the UK?
While a trial had positive results for individual employers, these findings do not mean there is enough evidence to support the implementation of a four-day week across the whole of the UK, says Dr Sandy Pepper, professor of management practice at the London School of Economics. “There is no evidence yet that the same thing can be achieved generally, across a whole economy, particularly here in the UK.”
The prospect of a four-day week could also cause managers and HR teams significant operational and logistical headaches; research organisation the Wellcome Trust scrapped its plan to trial a four-day week for its 800 head office staff after a three-month study deemed it “too operationally complex to implement”. As reported by Personnel Today, Jean Christophe Fonfreyde, the organisation’s head of reward, said the trust struggled to answer questions about how the pilot would work for part-time workers, if outsourcing partners would have to give their employees a four-day week as well, and how employees would react if some departments were allowed to work a shorter week and others weren’t.
Four-day week trials have also raised concerns about wellbeing; at Perpetual Guardian, some employees reported facing additional stress, and a group had to break the terms of the trial to keep up with a busy period. And, while the company reported there was no drop in work quality, there was no reported improvement, either.
In February 2022, we polled 1,001 employees in a range of industries to find out the number of people being offered a four-day work week without a pay cut. Interestingly, marketing and sales led with 58% of the employees surveyed saying they were offered it.
|Industry||% of employees offered a four-day work week (without a pay cut)|
|Marketing & sales||58%|
|Arts, entertainment or recreation||33%|
|IT & software||29%|
|Energy & utilities||29%|
|Scientific & technical||23%|
|Shipping & distribution||22%|
|Transportation & warehousing||21%|
|Healthcare and social assistance||17%|
|Government & public administration||15%|
|Finance and insurance||14%|
|Hotel & Foodservice||9%|
Find out what works for you
If you’re considering introducing a shorter working week, it pays to do your prep work upfront, says David Stone, CEO of MRL Consulting Group, an international recruitment consultancy that moved to a four-day working week in May 2019 following a positive six-month trial. “Firstly, you have to consider what it is you want from your staff. As an output-based business, our goals were easy to measure and the targets we set don’t necessarily require the team to be chained to their desks from Monday to Friday, 9am until 5pm.”
Aliya Vigor-Robertson, co-founder of consultancy JourneyHR, agrees that defining productivity upfront is essential. “For a long time, managers would value those employees who were the first into the office and last to leave, but this way of working was no guarantee of a higher quality of work produced,” she says. “Instead, if businesses shift their focus from the hours worked to the actual output of its employees, productivity can be seen in a new light”.
This re-evaluation of productivity needs to consider existing workloads, too: is your goal to achieve the same work as a five-day week but in less time, or will workloads decrease by 20% in line with the shorter working time? Reducing hours without reducing workloads is likely to result in higher stress and have a negative impact on employee wellbeing. It’s also worth bearing in mind that some professions – such as teaching – may find it impossible to switch to a four-day working week until there is a critical mass of organisations operating in the same way.
Stone adds that open and honest communication is vital. “Our employees were told exactly how the trial would work, and that it would only be made permanent if they could help to prove it would work. I also contacted all our clients personally so that I could explain what we were doing, and why.”
Ultimately, switching to a four-day week involves a lot of upfront due diligence about what’s possible and prudent for your organisation and circumstances, and being realistic about what will work for you – even if, at this point in time, the best option isn’t a shorter working week but the opportunity for more people to work flexible hours. As Stone says: “It’s really about finding what works for you and your business.”
This article was first published in January 2020. It was updated in June 2020 and April 2022 for freshness, clarity, and accuracy.