The Coronavirus pandemic impacted all our lives considerably and, among other things, resulted in a permanent shift towards hybrid working for many employers. As we return to a ‘new normal’, some employers are going further than this and are now looking at other ways to provide a better work-life balance whilst simultaneously improving productivity. A model which has been the subject of quite a bit of discussion is the introduction of a 4-day working week.
Let’s face it, everyone loves a long weekend and there certainly wouldn’t be many complaints about working one day less every week. But what would be involved in a transition to a 4-day working week? In this article, we discuss the pros and cons.
What exactly is a 4-day working week?
Under a true 4-day working week model, full time employees would get an extra day off per week, with no reduction in salary and no increase in the number of hours they need to work on their other 4 days. Depending on the model, employees could work Monday to Thursday and have Fridays off to extend their weekend, or another approach would be to allow each employee to choose which day they would prefer as their extra day off. This would mean a full-time employee would work for around 32 hours per week, as opposed to the standard 40-hour week. However, pay and benefits would remain unaffected.
This model is not the same as introducing a ‘compressed hours’ arrangement, whereby employees work the same number of weekly hours over 4 days rather than 5.
Studies have shown that productivity decreases as the number of hours worked increases and whilst a 4-day working week may not work for all industries, there are some benefits which can lead to overall improved wellbeing, without a loss of productivity.
According to the charity Mind, ‘1 in 6 people report experiencing a common mental health problem (like anxiety and depression) in any given week in England’. An extra day off would therefore provide workers with more free time to spend with family and friends, attend medical appointments or try out those hobbies they’ve never had time for before. More time spent doing the things we love would certainly lead to an improvement in wellbeing. This would result in happier employees who are more focused on their job, which would improve staff motivation, loyalty, and retention.
It could be said that a 5-day working week is no longer necessary as modern technology has significantly changed the way we work. For example, virtual meetings have proven to be an efficient way of cutting down meeting times, giving employees more time back rather than them having to commute to a meeting they didn’t really need to attend in the first place.
There are financial benefits of working a 4-day week as workers would see a reduction in travel expenses and save money on sandwiches, takeaway coffees and other impulse buys on their way to the office. Employers could also save on running costs if offices are closed for one extra day.
Gender equality is another benefit of the 4-day working week. Women are more likely to be the main carer for dependents which often prevents them working full time so a 4-day week would create time for all workers to take on caring roles and share responsibility.
A shorter working week could also have environmental benefits with reduced commuting and traffic congestion which would ease carbon emissions and help reverse the impact of global warming. A recent UK study found that a shift to a 4-day week by 2025 would shrink UK emissions by 127 tonnes.
Implementing a 4-day week could prove extremely challenging, with various HR and cost implications.
It doesn’t suit every business model and some jobs such as NHS staff and teachers, professions which are already in short supply, will not be suited to reduced hours. It could prove difficult for employers to balance various shift patterns if employee days off are randomly distributed, especially if the business operates on a 24/7 basis.
Employers would need to re-calculate holiday entitlement if a 4-day week involved reducing the number of hours worked. Part-time workers would also need to be considered to ensure they are not treated ‘less favourably’.
There are also cost implications for the employer to consider in the event that productivity does not increase to compensate for the reduced number of working hours. An employee may have to work overtime to finish a specific task, or the employer may need to hire more people, resulting in additional cost.
Not all employees will like the idea of a 4-day working week and the model may not be suitable for all, causing a potential divide amongst staff. Some workers might enjoy going to the office to get away from pressures at home, whereas others might enjoy the social aspect of catching up with colleagues in the workplace and feel they are missing out if working patterns are different. It might also lead to added stress for workers who feel like they are constantly in ‘pre-holiday mode’, rushing to get their work done in fewer hours.
4-day working week trials
Researchers from UK think tank Autonomy concluded that trials which took place in Iceland between 2015 and 2019 were an ‘overwhelming success’, as workers moved from a 40 hour week to a 35 or 36 hour week (for the same amount of pay).
The trial included 2,500 public sector workers (1% of Iceland’s working population) and has resulted in 86% of the country’s workforce working shorter hours as unions renegotiated working patterns. During the trial, productivity and service provision remained intact and employee health and wellbeing dramatically increased, with workers reporting they felt less stressed and at risk of burnout with more time to do hobbies and household chores.
As part of an international study, more than 30 companies in the UK will begin trialling a 4-day working week from June 2022 to measure productivity levels whilst working 20% less time with no reduction in pay. The trial will be coordinated by 4 Day Week Global in partnership with Autonomy and the 4 Day Week Campaign.
Researchers from Cambridge University, Boston College and Oxford University, will work with companies taking part in the trials to measure the impact on productivity in the business and the wellbeing of its workers. The findings will also determine the impact on the environment and gender equality.
A number of similar trials have already been launched in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Will a 4-day week work for your business?
Some might argue that the 5-day working week is an old-fashioned way of working and is no longer fit for purpose. The 4-day working week model is on the rise and has come under much consideration since the pandemic, which has given us the opportunity to re-evaluate the way we work, with more of us working from home or hybrid working.
A number of organisations have already successfully implemented a condensed working week, with approximately 45 companies accredited under the 4 Day Week Campaign. However, it will not suit every business model and it is important that employers consider the pros and cons of, and the issues around how it will be implemented in their own organisation, before embarking on the transition.