Updated on 26th June 2020
The four-day work week is a concept that has been floated around within the spheres of politics, management and workers’ rights for years. After all, the 40-hour work week as we know it has been around since the 19th century.
So, why is the media suddenly revisiting this topic? Lockdown lifestyles brought about by coronavirus have caused a huge change in working patterns for many small businesses and employees. A huge proportion of the UK have found themselves working from home, utilising digital technologies to replace face-to-face meetings.
Having become somewhat used to these lifestyles, accepting them as the ‘new normal’, it’s only natural that we may compare them to our traditional working habits and ask questions over whether we want to go back to exactly how things were when the lockdown is lifted. Alongside working from home and flexi-time options, the four-day week may be a work-life balance change that’s worth considering.
The version of the four-day working week that we’re describing involves workers completing 30 hours of work per week, instead of the normal 37.5, across a four-day period while maintaining their full annual salary. This means employees and employers alike could get access to a three-day weekend, which in theory could allow for better rest and relaxation without negatively impacting personal finances.
In this article, we’re going to dig deeper into the idea of the four-day working week; exploring the pros and cons while gaining an understanding of whether it’s been used before, and if so, how successfully.
None officially at the moment - although the four-day week has been trialled by a variety of different companies across the globe. The most famous of these trials may be the 2018 trial conducted by New Zealand financial services company ‘Perpetual Guardian’.
The team at Perpetual Guardian put 240 employees through an eight-week trial, in which they were paid for 37.5 hours work while only doing 30. They found marked increases in employee motivation, productivity and output - which they detail at great length in a whitepaper.
Perpetual Guardian’s trials found large increases in employee stimulation and empowerment
It’s possible, then, that a four-day week could yield good results if implemented properly. It may, in fact, be desperately needed if the study by Vouchercloud is accurate - which states that UK office workers, on average, only spend 2 hours and 53 minutes of the working day productively.
Could it be the case that having an extra day of rest and recreation helps you to be more productive within four working days than you are in your typical five-day week? Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of the four-day week.
Some of the potential benefits include:
One potential benefit of the 4-day week is that your employees may thank you, and respect your business more for valuing their work-life balance. Three in five people say they work longer hours than they want to, which could be negatively impacting personal relationships or even family units.
Perhaps by giving your employees an extra day; helping them to live a more balanced lifestyle, your employees will, in return, have more to bring to the table in the four days that they’re working. By changing the lens through which we view working hours and looking at empowering people rather than tying them to a desk for a certain amount of time, our workforces could become more motivated and energised.
Every company wants to have highly competent people filling their roles. With the right team, you can achieve more- and improve your ability to compete within your target market.
What better way, then, to entice the best people to join your organisation, than to offer the best available roles? Making the four-day week a part of your company policy could achieve the following:
Beyond these attractive benefits for employers, it’s common sense that most people would likely prefer to work for fewer hours, but work efficiently.
Few would argue against the potential appeal of this idea to job seekers - rather the challenges against the four-day week mostly lie in whether you could achieve the same amount of work, whether productivity dips, and how manageable it would be.
On those points - there’s a good amount of research which indicates that working more hours doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to be more productive. Despite well-known tales of some of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs, such as Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, working ridiculous amounts of hours - it would appear that for the majority of us, this doesn’t apply.
One example of this is the UK Trade Union Congress’ 2018 research which compares working time and productivity in the UK with ‘mature’ (or well-established and large) EU economies.
The TUC found workers in Ireland to be more productive than those in the UK, despite working 2.6 hours per week fewer on average
Of course, this data covers working hours that would be considered within a ‘normal’ working range - from around 38 to 42 hours per week for a five-day week. But it does indicate that workers in Denmark put in four less hours per week, while their productivity levels are 23.5% higher.
The four-day week builds on this trend and, according to the UK-based New Economics Foundation, a “normal” working week of 21 hours could help address a “range of urgent, interlinked problems”, including “overwork, unemployment, over-consumption, high carbon emissions, low wellbeing, entrenched inequalities, and the lack of time to live sustainably, to care for each other, and simply to enjoy life”.
Addressing these factors may lead to employee productivity increasing. If more is being achieved within four days, then every aspect of a business could potentially flourish as result of this initiative - including its profitability. It may be worth discussing this idea with your colleagues to get a sense of whether they feel they could become more productive when working for four days per week.
Despite the potentially vast benefits we have outlined so far, there’s no denying that implementing a four-day week could be a huge change for most UK businesses - and it’s easy to envisage some confusion around how best to implement the idea. Some of the potential challenges include:
From an economic perspective, it may be difficult for some employers to embrace the idea that they would continue to pay full wage to their employees for, essentially, 80% of their time.
For this reason, some critics describe the four-day week as a management fad, and claim that it holds no value. This notion is understandable - after all there can be no way of guaranteeing that productivity will increase by implementing a four-day week- and results could vary from business-to-business.
Conversely, how efficient are workers with the time they spend at work right now? Would an extra day of recreation, and cutting out any unnecessary meeting time or streamlining process lead to a more efficient four days of work that increases a company’s overall productivity? Perhaps.
For many jobs, there may be plenty of time that could be cut out of a work schedule to maximise efficiency. This isn’t true for all jobs, though. Particularly admin-heavy office jobs such as customer service teams, and most manual labour jobs may not have time within them that can simply be cut out or reduced via efficiencies alone.
So, would it be unfair to promote a four-day week for all, if only some were eligible for one? Or is much deeper-level change required to reimagine the way manual labour industries work? Or could flexibility be introduced to help combat this concern – i.e. by rotating the extra day off for different members of staff?
Broadly speaking, a great amount of trust is required between employers and employees to ensure that a five-day week can be cut down to four days without overall output suffering. Employers will need to ensure that the shared vision between teams is strong - and that everyone understands and feels empowered to make the right changes to their working patterns for a four-day week system to be effective.
For some workers, the idea of a four-day week may be met with fear and anxiety. Does a four-day week simply mean squeezing five days’ worth of work into a four-day period, and if so, could this be met with added stress?
Well, if you’re working at 100% efficiency throughout every working minute you have and that is the exact amount of effort and time required to achieve your output, then this may be the case. However, for the vast majority of workers - research seems to indicate that this is not the case. How many minutes of every hour do you spend productively? Are you always in the zone?
The four-day working week clearly has a vast number of pros and cons, and we’ve only touched on some of them today. Some additional food for thought you could discuss with your friends and colleagues include:
Attitudes towards the four-day week vary, but the very concept itself seems to be emerging more and more in conversations around going back to work and how businesses could change following coronavirus.
The investment bank Citi recently gave their employees the Friday before the May bank holiday weekend off in light of their hard work during the coronavirus pandemic and it appears to have been well-received.
With more countries starting to encourage businesses to consider the four-day work week, including New Zealand’s prime minister, could the working week as we know it be about to change?