A four day week – the new way of work?
There continues to be much talk about the four-day week, with many organisations either undertaking working trials or adopting this new way of work. With employee well-being at the forefront of this growing trend, companies have been experimenting with a more modern approach to work, centred on working smarter rather than longer and investing in the well-being of the most important asset to any business – the people.
Many companies have embraced the idea of a four-day week as a solution to burnout, as well as a way to promote better working conditions and environmental sustainability. Reports show that those who have trialled or implemented a four-day week have enjoyed increased productivity and profitability.
Reducing the number of work days or total hours worked across a week, thus enhancing our employees' work-life balance, seems like a good idea on paper. However, once we start to look ‘under the covers’, there appears to be many factors that need to be taken into consideration both from an individual employee perspective along with an organisation’s approach to this model.
A different approach
A four-day week may work for some employees, but often, a flexible working schedule is generally more desired by employees and correlates with higher engagement and well-being, and often fits better with the demands of the modern workplace. According to 4 Day week global, companies that have transitioned to a 32-hour work week see increased productivity, higher talent attraction and retention, deeper customer engagement, and improved employee health.
Some companies compress the standard work week into four days, typically giving workers Fridays off. However, a three day weekend is not practical for some organisations. The concept of a four-day week can take various forms, such as companies allowing employees to take different days off between Monday and Friday depending on their personal circumstances, the structure of the team they worked in or the nature of the organisation. Other organisations have given employees the choice of swapping weekdays for weekends to acknowledge and accommodate people's needs, family situations and habits. One hybrid approach to the four-day week was implemented by Arup, whose UK employees can work their hours flexibly over the course of Monday to Sunday, meaning staff can opt to work some of their contracted hours over a weekend rather than solely across the traditional Monday to Friday pattern.
Results of the UK trial
From June to December 2022, 60 companies in the UK conducted a trial of a four-day week based on the 100-80-100 model: i.e. employees received 100% pay for working 80% of their previous hours in exchange for a commitment to maintaining 100% productivity. Companies, which included a range of organisations from diverse sectors and sizes, were given the flexibility to implement various types of working time reduction or a four-day week, as long as employees were paid at their regular rate and experienced a significant decrease in work hours. Recognising that a four-day week was not necessarily a uniform solution for all businesses, a range of four-day weeks were developed, from the classic ‘Friday off’ model to ‘staggered’, ‘decentralised’, ‘annualised’, and ‘conditional’ structures.
4 Day Week Global ran it in partnership with Autonomy, the 4 Day Week Campaign and researchers from the University of Cambridge and Boston College. The trial was hailed a resounding success with reported findings that of the 61 companies who participated, 56 said they would continue trying out the four-day week following the pilot, with 18 saying they would make the change permanently.
The results of the report are based on administrative data obtained from companies, employee survey data, and various interviews conducted throughout the pilot period. These interviews were conducted at the trial’s beginning, middle, and end, providing multiple measurement points.
Some of the most extensive benefits of shorter working hours were found in employees’ well-being. A comparison of data before and after the trial revealed that 39% of employees experienced lower stress levels, and 71% reported reduced burnout. Moreover, the participating companies witnessed a significant decrease of 57% in staff turnover during the trial period, with a 65% reduction in sick days.
However, the trial didn’t work for every business. Several companies have chosen to discontinue the experiment, while others are still contemplating the permanent adoption of the four-day week. Even those companies that have reduced their working hours are facing new obstacles due to the shortened work week. Though this reflects a small portion of the trial’s participants, the four-day week isn’t an automatic solution for all.
It should be noted, however, that not all companies will benefit from the four-day week, as it only applies to a limited number of trial participants.
According to one participating company, a common trade-off for a three day weekend is a more rigorous four-day week. If a business keeps regular hours, giving employees an additional day off typically means having to find workers to cover shifts, resulting in heavier workloads for those who remain. In addition, certain companies, especially those that deal with customers directly, may need help to create enough flexibility in their schedules for a four-day week as it could incur extra hiring expenses, making it difficult to adopt a new model.
Outcomes of other trials
Similar experiments have been conducted in other parts of the world and have yielded positive outcomes. Advocates of the four-day week argue that it enhances productivity, while detractors maintain that it may not be feasible in certain industries.
In some of the trials conducted, it was found that employees took shorter breaks (such as reduced lunch hours), reduced the length of their meetings, or spent less time lingering to socialise to complete their workload. However, others found that the increased pressure (of having to achieve the same amount of output within the reduced number of hours) resulted in heightened stress levels and employees having to take additional days off to recover.
Company culture can also have a significant impact on the success of this approach. For example, if an organisation has a culture of overwork, then an approach needs to be adopted to change this to make the reduction in workdays/hours feasible.
Implementing a trial
Finding effective solutions to address concerns about work can be challenging. However, research suggests that prioritising the workforce’s well-being through a holistic and long term approach is the key to achieving happiness and prosperity. Whether a four-day week is the answer or not, we must begin with an honest evaluation of how productivity and time trade-offs affect worker well-being. This may involve adopting new working arrangements and schedules that allow businesses to remain open five or more days a week while ensuring every employee has a shorter work week. Ultimately, the goal is to strike the perfect balance between productivity and the workforce’s well-being.
Ahead of implementing this new way of work, experts have recommended that any organisation should review the practicalities of this approach and then, should it be deemed viable, run a trial of at least two to three months to be able to gather data to work with. Again, clear boundaries should be set, along with clear measurements of success and continual reviews and adjustments made during this period.
Additionally, any organisation embarking on this journey needs to design a policy tailored to its particular industry, organisational challenges, departmental structures, and work culture.
According to 4 Day Week, the following considerations should be taken into account when managing a four-day week trial:
The C-suite should decide on the objectives of the trial, such as increased productivity or better employee engagement and well-being. Determining if academic researchers should be involved to measure the results and establish productivity benchmarks and policies is also important.
- Employees should be informed about the trial and provided with clear and concise information about the goals. They should also be given enough time to prepare and collaborate with management on the trial's scope and management plan.
- Reducing disruptions and distractions in the workplace is crucial to the trial's success. Employees should be encouraged to share their learnings with others, and managers should be supported with resources and tools to help them adapt to the changes.
- It is important to be flexible and make adjustments based on what is learned during the trial. Regular engagement opportunities should be provided to encourage management and employee learning.
- After the trial, data should be compiled and reviewed with the help of academic researchers. The key levers for productivity improvements should be identified, and areas for further improvement should be noted.
- Finally, a permanent new workplace should be launched based on the lessons learned from the trial, whether it involves a 4-day week, reduced hours, or flexible schedules. In addition, communication with management and employees should be ongoing to continually improve workplace goals and outcomes.
The debate continues
The ongoing debate on the feasibility of a 4 day work week highlights the evolving definition of work. Companies should pay attention to the changing demands of their employees, who are increasingly seeking greater flexibility, improved work-life balance, and the freedom to choose when, where, and how they work. In a world where 75% of employers face hiring challenges, flexibility has become crucial. Positive changes like the implementation of a four-day week can pave the way for a future of work that is more flexible, prioritises well-being, and is driven by purpose.