Understanding the four day week

A major trial into the potential of the four-day working week has begun here in the UK.  Under this approach, employees work for four days (or 80% of their normal working week) but are required to maintain the same productivity that they previously achieved whilst working full time.  

The four-day week is based on the assumption that employees will become more focused helping them to achieve higher productivity.  Previous research has established that the four-day week can lead to improved employee wellbeing, productivity gains and reduced sickness absence – all attractive potential outcomes to employers.  The opportunity to work four days whilst be paid a full-time salary may well also prove to be good for recruitment and retention.  

Demand for more flexible forms of working was fuelled by the pandemic; employees have consistently reported that they are prepared to leave roles to seek ones in which they can work more flexibly, both in terms of where they work – as well as when.  The four-day week could help to fulfil this desire.  Reduced commuting and better work life balance top the reasons employees want to work more flexibly – aspirations to which a four-day week could potentially contribute.  

The five-day work week is in itself less than one hundred years old. Previously, a six-day working week (including Saturday working) was more typical, changing only in the 1920s and 30s when the US factory system moved to the 40-hour, 5 day pattern with which we are familiar today. Is it now time to reduce the working week once more? 

On the face of it, the four-day week looks like a simple and potentially popular idea, but there are undoubtedly risks with its implementation.  We do know from pre pandemic research that employees who are allowed to work flexibly often feel indebted to their employer and work harder and longer in response – not necessarily a good thing if we want to avoid burnout and stress.  The four-day week could lead to work intensification or extensification as employees strive to maintain productivity levels – or risk losing this flexibility.  There is some evidence to suggest that employees working the four-day week also take shorter breaks and undertake less social engagement with colleagues, both of which can lead to negative outcomes.  For employees who are already part time, often resulting in coping with what is essentially often a full-time workload, this could be even more problematic. 

Other practical issues arise too.  The four-day working week is best suited to the ‘knowledge worker’ undertaking office type work, and it is harder to replicate in other industries without adding to costs or even comprising service.  For some organisations this could in turn lead to the risk of a two-tier workforce, where some employees can work reduced hours but some cannot, resulting in disengagement. 

Any organisation considering a four-day week should first of all assess whether it will fit their specific and unique situation and organisational culture.  Before reaching for a solution, it is important to identify the problem or challenge to be addressed. 

  • Is this the form of flexibility that employees want?  How might it be combined with other forms of flexibility such as remote work?
  • How can you ensure that the four-day week will not result in more stress, fewer breaks, and longer working days?
  • How will you effectively monitor productivity and any resulting costs? 
  • What mechanisms can you establish to take feedback from employees, managers, customers and stakeholders? 
  • What policies and guidance will you need to issue to employees to ensure effective implementation?  

The four-day week does have potential in some organisations and for some types of work – but it won’t work for everyone.  Careful implementation, ongoing monitoring and clear guidance are key to its potential success.