The 4-day week: short and sweet or just short-changed?

The 4-day week: short and sweet or just short-changed?

The working week is not what it used to be. Hybrid working is now the norm for many if not all of us, and with the increased focus on where we work, there’s also been a corresponding focus on how we work. In particular, the 5-day week is coming under increasing scrutiny: is it still fit for purpose or could a 4-day week offer a more balanced, yet equally productive, work life?

The 4-day week: who will benefit?

That’s the question that 3,300 workers and 70 UK businesses have been trying to answer as part of a 6-month research pilot organised by 4 Day Week Global in partnership with the thinktank Autonomy, the 4 Day Week Campaign, and researchers at Cambridge University, Oxford University and Boston College.

The trial, which is due to end in November, has seen participating businesses adopting a 4-day week while paying their employees for 5 days and aiming for no loss in productivity. In other words, the deal is 80% of the hours for 100% pay and 100% productivity – but crucially not working 4 longer days. The study includes companies from sectors that may not be a natural fit for the 4-day week, including customer-facing industries like retail and hospitality.

“The four-day week is generally considered to be a triple-dividend policy – helping employees, companies, and the climate. Our research efforts will be digging into all of this,” explains the pilot’s lead researcher, Juliet Schor, a sociology professor at Boston College. “We’ll be analysing how employees respond to having an extra day off, in terms of stress and burnout, job and life satisfaction, health, sleep, energy use, travel and many other aspects of life.”

Similar government-run pilots have already been trialled in Belgium, Iceland and New Zealand with Spain and Scotland due to follow suit later this year. Andrew Barnes, CEO of New Zealand company Perpetual Guardian, is a key figure in the global movement for a 4-day week. His company adopted a 4-day schedule after a trial in which his staff reported lower stress levels, higher levels of job satisfaction and an improved sense of work-life balance. “This is about our company getting improved productivity from greater workplace efficiencies,” he said. “There’s no downside for us.”

It’s fair to say though, that not everyone shares Barnes’s confidence. So, without wishing to pre-empt the results of the UK trial, let’s take a quick look at the potential pros and cons.

Pros for employees

A better work life balance – a Harvard Business Review (HBR) study in 2021 found that 77% of workers identified a clear link between the 4-day week and better quality of life; Gen Z and Gen X were particularly positive. An additional day off each weekmakes for a better work life balance, by creating more time to spend with family, juggle caring roles, deal with admin, do household chores, fit in medical appointments or exercise.

Improved health – there’s evidence that a more balanced life will lead to less stress, fewer burnouts, and better health.

Child-friendly benefits – for those with children, a shorter week would lower the cost of childcare and allow for a more even balance of care duties between parents.

Pros for employers

Better employee engagement – through happier, more committed and focused employees who are also less stressed and take fewer sick days.

­Increased productivity – according to the HBR study, nearly two-thirds (64%) of leaders whose organisations have adopted a shorter working week reported increases in staff productivity and work quality. Take Microsoft as a case in point: in August 2019, their 2,400 employees took Fridays off, without loss of pay, and reported a 40% increase in employee productivity.

Increased loyalty, profitability and growth – a 4-day week shows your people that you care about them enough to change your business structure, which results in employees who are more likely to believe in and trust your company’s purpose.

Improved recruitment & retention – a flexible working pattern will help you attract and retain talented professionals. Research by 4 Day Global Week showed that 63% of businesses found it easier to attract and keep quality staff with a 4-day working week.

Pros for the environment – a shorter working week means less commuting and significantly lower energy usage in office buildings, leading to a reduced carbon footprint. Thanks to closing their offices on Fridays, the Microsoft trial resulted in huge energy and paper savings.

The Cons

It doesn’t suit all sectors or workers – some services, such as emergency services, public transport, logistics and even retail, require a seven-day-a-week presence. Some employees prefer a five-day week and like working overtime.

Reduced customer service – in 2007 the state of Utah redefined the working week for employees and closed their offices on Fridays. Despite happy staff, and immense savings in energy and greenhouse emissions, they abandoned the practice when the public complained about not being able to access services on Fridays. We’ve become accustomed to a 24/7 lifestyle, so a widespread 4-day week may require a sea-change in our consumer expectations.

Employment costs could actually rise – in sectors such as healthcare where staff are needed to work long shifts, companies may have to pay more overtime to meet demand, or employ more staff with all the HR and admin costs that entails. The HBR survey showed that nearly three-quarters (73%) of leaders expressed concerns over regulations and the bureaucracy involved in implementing the 4-day week.

The reality may not meet the expectation – in 2000, France reduced the working week from 39 hours to 35 hours for large firms, but assessments suggest this failed to improve workers’ happiness. In Belgium, employees recently won the right to work a 4-day week, without loss of salary, but only if they work four longer days to maintain equivalent hours. Unless a 4-day week is universal, there is a very real danger that people will feel pressured to work longer days to meet expectations.

It’s time we all benefited from the tech revolution

While we wait with real interest for the findings from the UK trial, it’s worth asking why we still work an 8-hours-a-day, 5-day week in the 21st century? It seems only fair that we should all share in the benefits of the technology revolution of the last 50 years. Consider the hours saved in communications alone, since the arrival of email, the Internet and social media, and perhaps it’s only fair that some of this time saved is passed on from organisations to their employees.

There are many questions that have yet to be answered. Should a 4-day week be the legal norm? Are the operational costs worth the gain? Will more leisure time simply cost us more in the long run? But there is definitely a feeling of momentum towards a shorter working week with a stronger focus on well-being.

Joe O’Connor, chief executive of 4 Day Week Global, believes that an increasing number of companies are recognising that the “new frontier for competition is quality of life, and that reduced-hour, output-focused working is the vehicle to give them a competitive edge”.

It seems likely that for businesses that can successfully implement a 4-day week the countdown could be on to establishing a truly competitive advantage.