The four-Day Work Week – Is Now The Right Time?

With trials of the four-day week picking up pace, could now be the time for your organisation to move to this new way of working?

The four-day work week and the calls for this new way of working to become a reality in the world of work have been gaining momentum for some time. 

Around the world, organisations large and small have been conducting trials into how practical, productive and profitable a shift to working four-days a week could be. With the results serving to demonstrate that working four-days instead of five is not such an unusual idea at all. 

The latest organisation to publicly announce a move to trialing the potential benefits of working four-days is not actually an organisation at all. Rather, it’s the country of Spain whose government has committed €50m to a national pilot set to reduce the time spent working, with the overall objective of this pilot being to effectively reduce to a four-day week as standard. 

Spain set to pilot four-day week as response to coronavirus pandemic

Under these plans, which have in part been devised as a means of responding to the aftermath of the Coronavirus Pandemic, financial support will be made available by the government to companies who reduce their working week to 32 hours, with no loss of pay. It’s anticipated that around 200 companies and from 3,000 to 6,000 workers will be involved with the project that’s planned to run for three years. 

Yet Spain is far from alone in considering alternatives to the five day work week. Finland’s prime minister Sanna Marin, has stated previously that her country may also want to experiment with a four-day workweek. 

And whilst four-day work weeks have not yet been made official in other European Countries, workers in Germany, the Netherlands, and across all of Scandinavia work far fewer hours than in the UK, whilst at the same time, being reported to have much higher levels of productivity.

Successful trials of four-day working so far

The evidence concluded from trials conducted so far suggest that a four-day work week is not only a good idea, but one that has significant benefits for both people and the organisation at large. 

Microsoft Japan for example, conducted a trial format that was experimented with in 2019. The so-called Work-Life Choice Challenge Summer gave the companies entire 2,300-person workforce five Fridays off in a row without making a change to employee pay. 

The project outcomes for Microsoft Japan were overwhelmingly positive, with reports of teams holding more efficient meetings, happier workers overall and boosted productivity by a significant and impressive 40 percent. 

Yet the positive results didn’t end there. Further outcomes included employees taking 25 percent less time off during the trial, the use of electricity decreased by 23 percent in the office and employees printed 59 percent fewer pages of paper during the trial too. Resulting in environmental and economic advantages. Overall, 92 percent of employees reported their preferring the shorter work week, suggesting an uptick in employee satisfaction too. 

Microsoft Japan’s 4-day work week boosted productivity by 40 percent

And it’s not only larger companies who are exploring the advantages of adopting a four-day work week. It’s also those companies who, like many impacted by having to make tough decisions as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic have also turned to the four-day work week as a means to reward employees affected by the tough decisions that needed to be made as enforced shut downs and furlough processes ensued. 

Publishing company Target, opted to move to a four-day work week as a way to make a positive gesture to employee’s who in the first UK lockdown had received a 20 percent cut in pay. The impact of lost contracts and reduced advertising spend, both of which were a direct result of the pandemic, saw Targets founder and owner David Cann seeking to balance ways to retain staff, despite the significant loss in revenue. Moving to the four-day work week was viewed by David as a way to then reward employees who had remained loyal to the company despite the challenging circumstances. 

The move wasn’t without its teething problems completely to begin with. However, the benefits, much like those seen at Microsoft Japan during their trial, outweighed any initial adoption niggles. Shorter meetings, increased operational efficiency and happier individuals were all worthwhile improvements viewed as being worth keeping. The resulting outcome was that the company retained a four-day work week, even when client contracts and work levels resumed to full force and pay was restored to their former full rates once again.

Championing the move to four-days

Understandably for organisations who are perhaps reluctant to make the move from five days to four, for them, much like those firms who were in the past reluctant to adopt flexible working or remote working, it could prove to be worthwhile evaluating the research findings on four-day work weeks, but also considering the ideas of those who are championing and campaigning for a permanent four-day work week to become the norm’ for all organisations more widely.  

Aidan Harper, is one such campaigner, who as a researcher at the New Economics Foundation, actively campaigns and promotes the benefits of a four-day work week for all. 

In his recent co-authored book, The Case for the four-day Work Week, which shares research and makes a compelling argument in the four-day work weeks favour. Details UK research conducted in 2019 which asked the question of whether UK employees believed that a shorter work week of four-days would improve their mental well-being. 70 percent of employees surveyed confirmed they believed it would. With a further 64 percent of UK businesses surveyed suggesting that they would consider making the move to working for four-days only. 

‘We see huge benefits’: firms adopt four-day week in Covid crisis

Echoing a similar sentiment to that of Harper, is Andrew Barnes, founder of New Zealand financial services firm Perpetual Guardian and author of the four-day Work Week. Here he writes about how his decisions to allow his people to work fewer days led to happier people overall, leading to, as reported in Forbes, a more profitable company.

Moreover, British multinational consumer goods company Unilever, who are headquartered in London, are in the throes of seeking to explore the possibilities of making this shift by conducting a live pilot of working four-days, selecting their New Zealand operation as the pilot test bed.

The trial itself commenced in December 2020 and is set to run for one year, with their 81 employees located in New Zealand, set to work just four-days, whilst being compensated for a full five. The trial has been set out with the objectives of working compressed schedules, as opposed to there being longer shifts over four-days. It is also planned that following the 12 month test period, findings will be evaluated ahead of potentially rolling a four-day working week out to over 150,000 employees around the world.

And the considerations around making the move to working a four-day week aren’t limited to European based countries and organisations. In the United States numerous studies and op ed’s exploring the compelling case for moving away from working five days a week are a regular occurrence.  

A Study by the American Journal of Epidemiology, sought to understand the link between productivity and the number of hours worked. The studies findings suggested that those who worked 55 hours per week performed less well on some mental tasks than those who worked 40 hours per week. 

Furthermore it appears there is some anecdotal evidence that a four-day work week may result in increased productivity. A sentiment echoed by Basecamp CEO, Jason Fried who in the New York Times wrote about how he allows his employees to work four-day, 32 hour weeks for half of the year. Commenting that in his view ‘a compressed workweek, tends to lead to people focusing on what’s important. And that by constraining time there is an encouragement of increased quality’.

Is it really all upside?

Yet, as with any new idea or proposed change to ways of working, there can be scepticism about the new approach. Combined with there being factors about the new way of working that aren’t as positive as everybody might hope. 

There is the possibility that a four-day work week will only be available to those who work at the most progressive of organisations. Those that operate in professional service industries for example. Yet for those whose work is classified as unskilled or workers who are contracted for zero hours, the likelihood, given that those individuals need to work the hours to actually get paid, won’t be in a position to enjoy this option. Irrespective of the apparent benefit to productivity and mental health. 

Guidelines for an outcome-based trial – raising productivity and engagement | Source: 4 Day Week Global

Furthermore, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) questioned some of the issues that a four-day work week could present rather than solve. Such as a reduction in flexibility over the period of the four-days that are worked. One company evaluated by CIPD had introduced the four-day work week, but had also implemented a schedule involving set working hours, whilst also discouraging non-work appointments to be taken during working hours.

This impending lack of flexibility used as the trade off to enable a four-day work week for some organisations, could negatively impact those employees who rely on access to flexibility in their working week, to, for example, accommodate caring and childcare responsibilities.

The issue of workload and availability to customers is another consideration with the four-day work week. Research by Henley Business School in their ‘for better four worse’ study, concluded that with business days falling across different days internationally, the challenge for businesses and employers to decide which days become those worked could be a difficult one to make. 

Moreover the workload of employees could also prove problematic to squeeze into four-days rather than five. Resulting in quite the opposite effect of engaged employees experiencing less stress. This is a consideration that for UK business owners, whose workers are reported to work longer hours than their European counterparts, could prove challenging to address. 

Will a four-day working week require employees to work more flexibly?

Analysis by the Trade Union, TUC found that UK employees worked almost two hours longer each week than those in the EU, at a rate of 42 hours per week. The culture of ‘long working hours’ in the UK, is one that may not be easily remedied by simply moving to four working days a week. Where would the work go? Would this mean more employees simply taking their work home with them to work out of hours? And would this lead to more problems than it solves? These genuine and worthwhile considerations for Human Resources and business leaders alike, are just some of the concerns that could halt the immediate roll out of a four-day work week for all. 

Yet analysis by Sage Australia, sought to make note of the differences in working hours and the link to productivity. An insightful piece of analysis, given that the average working hours in Australia are 32.7 hours per week, far behind those worked on average in the UK. Notably further still, is Luxembourg which according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), works just 29 hours on average per week, yet by contrast to Australia and indeed the UK, continues to lead in global rankings on productivity. 

Four Better or Four Worse? A White Paper from Henley Business School
Four Better or Four Worse? | Source: Henley Business School

This insight into links between productivity and hours worked in an interesting one and again suggests that there is good reason to consider making changes to the number of hours worked and days worked to uplift workplace productivity.

Bringing it all together?

HR is changing and so too are the organisations that HR serves. Along with those changes that are coming through quickly as a result of technology adoption, digital transformation and changing needs from employees at the heart of organisations. Is this change to working four-days, simply the most recent that we can come to expect to become the norm’? 

The research into changes being seen in the workplace and in the HR functions suggests this to be the case. Much like agile and remote based working, as two key examples of innovations to ways of working that were pushed back on by many organisations and indeed some HR professionals in the past. Both of which have now seen widespread adoption, thanks in part to the Coronavirus pandemic. Therefore it’s conceivable that the four-day work week could also see widespread adoption. 

Sage people who recently carried out a research survey of 500 senior HR and People leaders, in medium sized organisations globally, revealed a number of interesting insights and predicted trends. Notably the research on the topic of flexible working and changes to how HR operates, found that 80 percent of HR leaders expect to adopt modern People processes within the next two years. 

Furthermore the study reflected on the ways the world of work continues to change at pace.  However at the same time, the engagement and productivity or the workforces continues to be low. The report reflects on those employees surveyed, who admitted that they were productive for only 30 hours a week, again prompting the due consideration of how HR and business leaders can best respond to this ongoing productivity challenge with a change to working hours. 

More broadly the move to uplift employee experience by HR, in light of this now being regarded as more central to retention and employee happiness than employee engagement alone. Suggests that the tenets of a four-day work week, could go a long way to improving the experience of employees at work overall. 

The changing face of HR. HR and People leaders' report | Source: Sage People
The changing face of HR. HR and People leaders’ report | Source: Sage People

With 95% of HR and People teams surveyed in the Sage People research, already offering flexible working, or planning to in the next two years. And 94% of respondents expecting further changes in the HR sector over the upcoming three years. The data certainly suggests that the four-day working week, proposed as being a benefit to society, the economy, and the environment, could well be the latest transformation to be adopted in the ever changing world of work.


Sage HR

For companies where people are paramount to success, Sage HR  helps businesses overcome the complexities of managing their people, so they can focus on growing their business.

Written By

Jade Taryn Graham

Jade is the founder & CEO of Inspired a people & talent consultancy working with the most innovative early stage companies worldwide. Founder & CCO of Inspired Talent Media Ltd and contributing writer for Sage HR where Jade writes about people, leadership, work/life balance and change.