The four-day work week: is it the future?
Working more hours doesn't mean more productivity. So, what would be the effect of working fewer hours? We look at whether the four-day working week is an idea whose time has come.
Should the work week be four days?
For a while, people have been talking about the four-day week as a way of offering greater autonomy to employees without losing productivity. As far back as 2019, a poll of 36,000 Americans1 revealed that 67% would prefer a four-day working week and would be happy to extend each of those four days to ten hours.
In the last two years, working patterns have been disrupted more than ever before. Employees are now calling for a better work-life balance and more flexibility. And, in the midst of the Great Resignation and war for talent, companies are realising that to remain competitive in the job market, they need to listen and adapt to what employees want.
What does the four-day week look like?
According to the latest UK government data, the average person works 36.5 hours per week, usually between Monday and Friday. In some countries, it's much more – workers in China clock up an average almost 41 hours a week and those in Singapore work more than 44 hours per week. Success and productivity are measured in terms of results per hour, or days worked, rather than on overall results. So the idea is that shifting to a target-driven agenda and focusing employees on organisational priorities, outputs and targets, can empower them to manage their own time while still meeting the goals of the business.
But how would a four-day week work? Organisations may choose to condense the standard 37.5 hours into four days, or to cut the number of hours each employee works in a week. The first option runs the risk of employee burnout, while the second potentially involves cutting pay and holiday entitlement. But there are different ways to put the new pattern into practice and it's not a one-size-fits-all-solution.
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Companies already operating a four-day week
Many businesses and countries are already trailing four-day weeks, and some have adopted them permanently. Here's how a few companies are doing it.
Project management software provider Basecamp offers four-day work weeks every summer2.
E-commerce experts Bolt 3 formalised the four-day work week in January 2022, after a three-month trial in which employees had every Friday off.
Software company Buffer 4 started offering employees a four-day work week during the pandemic in May 2020. Two years later, it reports that 91% of the workforce say they're happier and more productive.
After a pilot, online security company DNS Filter5 is continuing a rotating four-day working week where team members get every other Friday off.
Hiring platform G2i6 has a bi-weekly four-day working week and says it's helped with recruitment, talent retention and work quality. According to the company, "The four-day work week undoubtedly changed G2i for the better."
The advantages of a four-day work week
In the post-pandemic job market, flexibility, autonomy and desire for fairness, equality and sustainability are deciding factors for job candidates. And where as many as three-quarters of employers are reporting difficulty in hiring new staff, offering choice about what, where and how often people work, can make an organisation more attractive to jobseekers.
One of the major benefits of a shorter week is that it can reduce burnout and stress, and preliminary results suggest this can happen at no cost to productivity. Microsoft7 in Japan, for example, reported a 40% rise in productivity after a four-week trial. And studies show 8 that shorter working weeks can also mean fewer absences, and fewer in-work accidents and mistakes.
Early data from live trials of four-day weeks suggests that 70% of employees feel they're working more efficiently and prioritising and managing their time better. And companies report as much as a 55% reduction in absenteeism. A 'four-on three-off' pattern can improve physical and mental relaxation and offer more time for family and friends, hobbies and exercise. It can also increase satisfaction by making space for life admin, like homemaking and managing finances.
A UK study suggests that reducing the working week to four days could cut the country's carbon footprint by as much as 127 million tonnes a year by 2025. This is based on employees using more free time to make more sustainable life choices, like cycling and walking to work, traveling less frequently, and cooking with fresh ingredients rather than supplementing a busy working day with time-saving ready meals.
Employees working fewer days may also reduce the amount of energy businesses use to run office spaces, making their businesses more environmentally sustainable.
According to the Office for National Statistics in 2015, women provided 74% of all childcare time in the UK. A four-day week could allow people to contribute the extra day to childcare, sharing the responsibilities of home and family more evenly.
Disadvantages of a four-day work week
A drastic redesign of the working week may seem attractive, but many business leaders are sceptical about the wisdom of adopting a four-day programme permanently.
Four-day working can be divisive
Not every job role lends itself to four-day working. If some people can work four days and some can't, it can lead to resentment within organisations.
Positive effects may be short-lived
Research shows 12 that as four-day working becomes the norm, employees no longer appreciate it to the same degree. And where a four-day week might initially be seen as an extra day off, after a while the remaining ten-hour days may be seen as working harder for the same money.
Increase in disengagement
A Gallup poll of three different working week programmes found that although employee wellbeing rises and burnout reduces in a shorter working week, active disengagement also spikes; workers who may already be feeling disconnected become more likely to become more alienated over longer breaks.
It might well be possible to do desk-based tasks in four longer days rather than five. But fitting in other work commitments, like meetings, training and collaborative sessions, may put pressure on a tighter schedule and leave employees feeling more stressed rather than less.
The value of the four-day week in terms of equality depends on what's done on the fifth day. If women are expected to use it for childcare, equality is damaged, not enhanced. Plus, the health implications of longer working hours for older employees, or those with disability or chronic illness may also mean they're disadvantaged by a four-day week.
Closing a business premises on a fifth day can save energy and reduce carbon footprint, but rent and utilities still need to be paid. A four-day week may even increase costs where space and resources need to expand to accommodate more people being on-site for longer.
Is a four-day week right for the business?
A four-day week may not be right for all organisations or all employees. Some sectors – emergency services, hospitality, transport and logistics – need their workers on the case five or even seven days per week. Also, many workers are happy with the five-day working week, and may prefer the opportunity for overtime and the chance to work from home, some, or all the time. And with schools operating five days per week, a four-day week with longer hours might not work for parents and others with childcare responsibilities.
Four-day week considerations:
Is it what employees really want?
Can the business continue to function effectively for customers?
Can areas of co-functionality be maintained over four days rather than five?
How can the business communicate effectively without encroaching on the days when employees aren't working?
How can the business maintain engagement over longer staff breaks?
How to make the four-day week work
Clarify the new model: Will this mean four ten-hour days, or reduced pay and benefits with employees working the same hours over fewer days?
Consider a trial, either at a single location or with individual teams.
Educate and train managers to manage the workforce within a different working pattern.
Involve everyone in the decision and review all employees' experience.
Decide on measurements. These may be maintaining productivity, improving wellbeing, increasing recruitment and staff loyalty.
Make sure creativity and innovation isn't being sidelined during fewer, more pressured days.
Communicate what you're planning and why, to manage customers' expectations.
Calibrate leave and benefits to suit your new working model.
Think about flexibility in terms of periods of higher demand, or seasonal factors where staff might need to work extra, or reduced hours.
Use technology so everyone can be as involved as they want to be, on-site or working remotely.
Alternatives to the four-day week
The four-day week isn't the only way to offer employees more flexibility and better wellbeing. Alternatives to consider include:
Global trials of the four-day working week
In the past few years, several countries have been holding trials of four-day week working. Here are some of the results.
Between 2015 and 2019 Iceland ran a four-day working week trial and found that the wellbeing of over 2,500 employees increased in terms of health and work life balance.
A four-day week trial at Perpetual Guardian in New Zealand in 2018, found engagement levels rose between 30 and 40%, work-life balance metrics rose by 44%, empowerment by 26%, leadership by 28%, work stimulation by 27% and organisational commitment by 29%. Also in New Zealand, Unilever is now operating a year-long trial, which it plans to roll out to other countries.
In February 2022, Belgian employees won the right to choose whether to work four days per week without loss of salary.
As of June 2022, more than 3,300 employees in 70 companies in the UK have begun a pilot project which will run for six months. It's based on 100% pay for 80% of the time in exchange for a commitment to maintain 100% productivity. Researchers will analyse employees' responses, looking at stress and burnout, job and life satisfaction, health, sleep, energy use and travel.
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