In December the UK’s landmark trial of the four-day working week will come to an end. For companies and industries contemplating making the transition to a four-day week, the trial will deliver the most comprehensive verdict so far on its likely benefits and pitfalls.
Indeed, we already have some early data on how those involved in the trial have found the experience. A survey of participating companies three months into the survey returned highly positive responses, with 86% of respondents saying that they are likely or extremely likely to consider keeping a four-day week once the trial ends.
Nevertheless, despite its reported benefits the four-day week comes with challenges for certain industries and many workers and employers remain doubtful about the wisdom of introducing the practice to their organisations.
With the UK trial so close to concluding, it’s a great time recap some of the advantages and challenges of the four-day week and consider which sectors would benefit and which should avoid making the transition.
One of the key claims made in favour of adopting the four-day working week is that doing so would result in an uptick in worker productivity.
Between 2015 and 2019 Iceland ran two trials of a reduced working week with no reduction in pay and found that productivity remained the same or improved across the majority of participating businesses. Then, in 2019, Microsoft trialled a four-day week in Japan and found that productivity increased by 40%.
Results from halfway through the UK trial have echoed these findings, with 95% of respondents saying that their productivity had increased or stayed the same. It should be pointed out though that only 41 of the 70 participating companies responded. The feedback at the end of the trial, involving all the participating companies, may be less definitive.
A simple gain in individual worker productivity may also not be enough for businesses that need to maintain a Monday-Friday presence but don’t have the resources to hire more staff. This could entail complex and unsatisfying decisions over which days their employees work, making it more challenging to collaborate and manage projects. The end product could be an overall drop in productivity for some companies.
Although technological developments such as customer-facing AI can soften this trade-off, they may still imply further expenditure and investment, and won’t be appropriate solutions in all sectors. While AI can reduce the burden on customer service personnel, for instance, it’s unlikely to be as useful for nurses and teachers.
Another foundational argument in favour of the four-day week is that it increases worker wellbeing. Proponents suggest that workers with more time to rest and pursue out-of-work interests are happier, healthier and more energised at work as a result.
The value of employee well-being was a key takeaway from our recent interview with Global Transformation Leader and qualified Mental Health First Aider Sukh Randhawa. Sukh argued that individuals who don’t have enough opportunities to release stress are much more likely to experience burn-out, resulting in a drop in their productivity and the quality of their work.
In a 2015-2017 trial study in Sweden, nurses working reduced hours (six hours a day for five days a week) logged fewer sick hours, reported better health, mental wellbeing and greater workplace engagement. They were also able to arrange 85% more activities for the patients in their care, illustrating the knock-on benefits of worker well-being on productivity.
Anecdotal evidence from the UK trial suggests that employees have enjoyed the additional rest and opportunities to embrace leisure pursuits provided by having a three-day weekend. Those whose days off are scattered throughout the week, though, may find it harder to detach from work, and could feel additional pressure to work on their days off, especially if the four day week is making collaboration more challenging.
Staff in busy roles who find themselves working fewer hours may also inexorably feel pressure to fit more work into less time, leading to an even more pressurised work environment and higher levels of stress than before.
It’s important to bear in mind, though, that fitting five days of work into four days is not what the four-day week is designed to achieve. The current UK study is operating on the 100-80-100 model (100% pay for 80% of the time in exchange for a commitment to 100% productivity), so a scenario where workers are attempting to fit five days of work into four may be more indicative of a flawed implementation of the scheme, than of a failure in the four-day week itself.
Additionally, with burnout an increasingly discussed and prevalent problem amongst UK workers, especially since the pandemic and the increased blurring of the boundaries between home and work, companies who can convincingly offer their employees a better work-life balance are likely to stand out to potential recruits and could have a crucial edge in the war for talent.
Another powerful argument made in favour of the four-day week is its potential to improve inclusion in the workplace. Women for instance, often assume disproportionate childcare responsibilities and are forced to make greater career compromises as a result. A reduction in the number of working hours promises to help level the playing field.
Against this is the objection that reducing working hours might actually make it easier for those without demanding life commitments to leapfrog their colleagues, since they are more able to develop their skills and accomplish extra work in their free time. As was the case for employee wellbeing, it seems that the potential benefits of the four-day week depend on how strictly it is adhered to.
On the other hand, those potential benefits are considerable. A recent study by McKinsey involving 1000 companies in 15 countries found that the most gender-diverse companies were substantially more likely to outperform the least gender-diverse. By making it easier for women to succeed in the workplace, the four-day week could noticeably improve the performance of companies able to make the transition.
From a recruitment perspective, we know how vital ED&I is becoming in the war for talent. If your organisation can demonstrate its implementation of practices that make for a more equal landscape, the benefits to your employer brand will speak for themselves.
It’s estimated that moving to a four-day week by 2025 would slash the UK’s emissions by 127 million tonnes, the equivalent of taking the country’s entire private car fleet off the road. With ESG commitments and net zero targets looming over companies nationwide, the four-day working week could be advantageous in the race to improved corporate sustainability.
But with workers spending less time in the office, the hundreds of thousands of local businesses who depend on the footfall generated by office workers are likely to suffer, further contributing to the economic headwinds we’ve seen over the last few years.
Additionally, given that some companies are likely to find that the best way to accomplish the transition to the four day week is to switch to fully remote working, the environmental costs may at times outweigh the rewards. Remote workers need laptops and other difficult-to-recycle technology, and may collectively consume more energy heating and lighting their homes during working hours than they would in-office. The increase in online communication also implies an increase in environmentally costly servers and data centers.
Nevertheless, with environmental issues now at forefront of people’s minds, the environmental credentials of businesses are certain to play a significant role in their ability to attract new talent, let alone investment or acquisition, depending on your goals. Adopting a four-day week could improve business’ pulling power and help to give them a competitive edge in the labour market.
When the demand for experienced, talented individuals outstrips the available candidates on the market by a long shot, showing off your brand’s commitment to the environment and its employees’ work-life balance can only work in your favour.
Although the early signals from the UK survey have been highly encouraging, it’s clear that even taking into account its many benefits, implementing the four-day week would come with significant challenges for many businesses. Indeed it may turn out to be impracticable for certain sectors, such as governmental or emergency services.
While the ubiquity of the five-day week is often represented as inflexibility by its detractors, it does have the advantage of making it easy for different businesses and sectors to work together. The greater variability in the shape of the working week that is likely to result as more and more businesses experiment with shorter working hours has the potential to make collaboration between businesses more challenging.
Much also depends on the willingness and ability of companies to implement the four-day week the right way; businesses who fail to achieve this are likely to see an exacerbation of the problems the practice aims to solve.
Nevertheless, the potential benefits for businesses able to implement the scheme are profound. Although the four-day week may not be the right choice for everyone, it’s an option that businesses can’t afford to ignore.
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