June 7, 2022
When a pilot programme for a four day week was announced in the UK early in the New Year, #4dayweek trended for days on twitter, with jokey comments on how employees taking part in the trial should do everything not to ‘f*** it up for the rest of us.’ But behind the humour there’s a real issue with productivity in the UK. Recent Office for National Statistics reveals that while productivity grew across all G7 countries during the pandemic, the UK experienced the largest falls in GDP growth and an increase in the number of hours worked.
The idea of actually cutting the number of days employees work may seem counter intuitive, but the results of global trials are promising. The UK pilot, from consultancy Autonomy – working in partnership with 4 Day Week Global, Cambridge University, Oxford University, Boston College, and the 4 Day Week UK campaign, has spawned a lot of interest in the UK, with at least 30 UK based companies taking part.
Joe O’Connor Pilot Program Manager at 4 Day Week Global, who has been coordinating pilots of the four-day working week in Ireland, the United States and Canada says: “In terms of demand we’ve had more expressions of interest in the UK in the first week than we’ve had over several months in the US and Canada. The degree of interest in the UK is quite remarkable, so we’re in a space where we think there’ll be 50 organisations [taking part] or more.”
He says the motivation for many companies is not just productivity or wellbeing but recruitment and retention. In the past the employers who had an edge were those who offered flexible working, but post pandemic, employers are looking for the next big thing which could give them the edge. “This pilot programme initially arose from the idea that if we wanted the four-day week to grow from a niche in the fringes of the workplace conversation, we wanted to be able to demonstrate that positive outcomes we’d seen from the companies we’d worked with could be replicated on a much wider scale.”
Between 2015-2019, Iceland ran two large-scale trials of a reduced working week of 35-36 hours with no reduction in pay. The results, as analysed in a joint project by Autonomy and the research organisation Association for Sustainability and Democracy (Alda) in Iceland, found productivity and service provision remained the same or improved across the majority of trial workplaces. Last March, Germany’s largest trade union agreed on a pay deal in a key industrial region, allowing some workers to move to a four-day week without significant earnings loss. Autonomy research found that a 30-hour week in Germany’s public sector is not just desirable for worker wellbeing and for reducing the costs of burn out and presenteeism but could create hundreds of thousands of jobs.
Following the success of a New Zealand-based trial at property planning company, Perpetual Guardian in 2018, Andrew Barnes and Charlotte Lockhart set up 4 Day Week Global, the not-for-profit platform for the promotion of the four-day week. Speaking at the Workplace Trends update Barnes explained that: “at its heart the four-day week is a reduced hour’s working week on normal weekly pay but one which maintains or enhances productivity.”
What the four-day week is not, as has been suggested in some of the media coverage of the pilots, is a form of condensed working with employees working flat out for four days a week, eschewing lunch breaks and working late.
What the four day week is not is a form of condensed working
Explained Barnes: “It’s the 100/80/100 rule. 100 percent pay, 80 percent time provided by staff and the maintenance of 100 percent of normal, that is, five-day productivity.” He advises the four-day week can be applied to all contracts “as the formula works whether you’re working full or part time. The time off can be taken flexibly. Some in my organisation take one whole day, while some work over five days but with reduced hours. The reason we did that was to ensure our business operated normal business hours, and from a business perspective we found productivity improved 25 percent – with my business twice as productive as my nearest competitor.”
UK recruitment firm, MRL Consulting Group took a different approach, by closing its offices every Friday for a six-month trial in 2019. An increase in productivity levels of one-quarter (25 percent) as well improvements in employees’ health, led to a permanent arrangement.
Chief executive officer David Stone first got the idea when he read a piece by a former recruitment colleague who’d successfully implemented the idea. When his German manager suggested: “If we go for a four-day week, our good people will never leave and more people will want to join us”, he carried out some research, considering various connotations, floating days, reduced hours etc.
He says: “After a ton of research we came to the conclusion that the best solution for us would be work Monday to Thursday – you don’t stretch the hours but keep those standard – all off on Friday and have the team back together Monday to Thursday. Most recruiters work long hours and will be on their phones a lot, but our shift was to focus on outputs not inputs, we’re so conditioned to focus on time spent and this is the wrong metric. Instead, look at the results.”
The results show that short-term absence reduced by almost 40 percent, with 87 percent of employees reporting improvement in their mental health and a reduction in workplace stress. A further 95 percent said that they feel more rested after having a three-day weekend.
Positive comments from staff include… “it’s made a real difference to the people who work here and the company as a whole. We take fewer sick days, work harder, and have more time to recharge.” and “I feel I have more time to attend to personal matters without it affecting my working day.”
Not for all
There are concerns however that the four-day week will be hailed as the latest workplace productivity panacea, along with flexible or hybrid working. Research by Henley Business School revealed that in the Icelandic experiment, individuals did not necessarily compress their 35/36 weekly working hours into four days, and some of the trials only included a reduction in working time of between four and five hours. It also warns that a four-day working week might not be the best option for all roles and businesses – for example those which need to be available to their customers.
Some HR commentators are also sceptical. Ben Gateley, CEO and Co-Founder of online HR provider Charlie HR, warns that “companies and employees must be under no illusion that the four day work week is some kind of ‘magic bullet.”
The productivity gains have come from people who are empowered, motivated and focused
“Companies operate within all kinds of structures. Some will be able to accommodate a shortened working week, and, for others, it would be totally inappropriate. Those with customer-facing roles or with ‘always-on’ tech deliverables will find a four day week will be far from practical. And for those for whom it might work, there are wellbeing implications to consider which are at odds with the seemingly work/ life friendly offer to reduce your hours by a significant 20 percent. Employees whose working week is already maxed out will find a directive which removes an entire working day every week stressful, meaning they are required to work longer hours to make up the shortfall.”
While a new report commissioned by the Labour Party concluded that a blanket limit on the hours worked by people in the UK is both ‘unrealistic and potentially counter-productive’, it advised that the length of the working week should be decided on a case by case basis.
This argues O’Connor is the reason why organisations must not take a rigid approach to the process. “There are general principles we advise, one being that while the leadership should define clear targets and metrics for the organisation, they should then get out of the way. Common mistakes we see firms make is that they announce a trial but the C suite have talked themselves out of the idea because they believe their role is to come up with every solution, every problem, before they engage.”
“In reality the productivity gains have come from people who are empowered, motivated and focused. Because is such a transformative benefit for individuals, their interests are so clearly aligned with the company’s that they’re able to identify inefficiencies and waste in their workday.”
This was certainly the case with MSL where the staff came to Stone and said that on week’s with bank holidays on the Monday, they’d volunteer to work on Fridays, as they could meet their targets more easily that way.
As one of his members of staff commented: “It’s about choice. If you know you can hit your targets in four days then you acknowledge that the door is open for a fifth day of work if you aren’t sure you can. I usually find myself checking emails or returning calls. It’s about ownership of your business not presenteeism and being mature enough to know the difference.”
A major purpose the trials is to chart how a four-day week works across different cultures, both within countries and sectors. O’Connor notes that in Europe the programme has more government involvement, for example in Ireland Irish Trade Union Fórsa are leading the Four Day Week Ireland campaign, whereas in the US and Canada most of the leadership is being driven by the private sector.
He says: “We’re aware that the stakeholders who are critical to success will be different according to the culture and make-up of the country in which we’re working. In terms of size of employers, we have everyone from small start-ups to corporates with 1,500 staff. Critical mass of interest is coming from sectors which won’t surprise you, finance, tech, software, agency style working such as PR /marketing make up 50 to 60 percent industries. But we also have a lot of interest from political, hospitality and manufacturing.”
The global research project will be working with individual organisations to determine what their baseline metrics are pre-trial, including revenue, wellbeing, sick leave, turnover, energy use, all of which can be done in the same way regardless of sector. What they can’t measure is productivity so they’ll work with individual companies to determine this, to try and work out effective output. At the end the project will produce an impact assessment on the results, some of which may challenge existing norms on how [mainly women] balance their careers with having children.
O’Connor was previously Director of Campaigning with the Fórsa Trade Union and recalls: “In 2018 a survey of our members found that many of the women who came back off maternity leave with reduced hour arrangements – often working a four day work week, were being paid 80 percent and yet effectively their responsibilities and expectations were the same.
“This is why they’re often the people who embrace this idea in employment. Part of the research that we’re doing is how the four-day week impacts employment and the distribution of labour. Does it lead to men being freed up to take on a greater proportion of the caring and domestic responsibilities in the home? Does it equalise the playing field with flexibility within the workplace so that women are empowered to take on more leadership roles and have more training opportunities? This is why our study will look at both the sustainability and equality dimensions. My expectations are that I don’t see the theory being wrong, and that this is something could help to even the employment playing field.”
Sara Bean is one of the UK’s best known and most widely respected workplace and facilities management journalists. She is a regular contributor to IN Magazine and the editor of FMJ.