Is it time we switched to a four-day week?

The idea of a shorter working week is gaining traction in some circles, but raises questions for HR teams over workloads, wellbeing, and challenges applying such initiatives across all job roles

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The idea of a shorter working week is gaining traction in some circles, but raises questions for HR teams over workloads, wellbeing, and challenges applying such initiatives across all job roles

From the moment you enter your workplace, to the moment you leave, how much actual work do you get done? Do you spend hours checking your email? Are you pulled into meetings for most of the day? For many office-based employees, working a standard 9am-5pm shift isn’t the most productive way to get lots done – which is why a rising number of companies are reducing their working weeks from five to four days. A cross-party group of UK MPs also 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 and New Zealand are just two other countries considering a similar move.

Those advocating for a four-day working week can be seen as responding to two of the biggest drains on our potential productivity: technology, and co-workers. Research by Adobe in 2015 found that employees spend an average of six hours per day just on their email. The typical employee day includes hours-long meetings (one study estimates that executives spend nearly 23 hours a week in meetings), constant interruptions from instant messaging platforms such as Slack, and long-distance travel that could be replaced with a relatively short phone call.

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?

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.

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 between 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.

Based on this evidence, the four-day working week appears both viable and desirable. But would it work on a larger scale (Finland is considering a country-wide four-day week)? And for all types of workers, across various sectors?

While a trial had positive results for Microsoft Japan, these findings do not mean there is enough evidence to support the implementation of a four-day week across 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 would employees 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.

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 take into account 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 for freshness, clarity and accuracy.