With a significant number of employers having adopted a 4-day week model, and with a pilot about to begin in the UK in June 2022, we consider what we mean by the 4-day week and some pros and cons associated with the concept.
The length of the working week has long been debated given that it determines the time available for leisure and so working excessive hours can impact the welfare and health of workers. The International Labour Organisation, in its first convention in 1919, adopted limited hours of work and adequate rest breaks for workers. Just a few years later Henry Ford introduced the concept of the "weekend" in his automotive factories.
More recently some countries have been trialling shortening the working week further. Iceland between 2015 and 2019 trialled some workplaces moving from a 40 hour to 35- or 36-hour week, without reduced pay and more recently this practice has been expanded further. The Belgian government has recently announced an overhaul of the country's labour laws which includes the right for employees to request to work the same number of hours in a compressed four-day week. If companies refuse the request, which they are entitled to do, they will be required to justify the refusal in writing.
In the UK, prior to the 2019 General Election, the Labour party pledged to reduce full time hours to 32 a week within the next decade with no loss of pay. Scotland and Wales governments have both also indicated that they are looking into the concept.
4 Day Week Global, the not-for-profit community has made headlines this year. It has recently been running pilot programmes with researchers and companies around the world and is currently encouraging UK businesses to sign up to a six-month trial of a 4-day working work from April to September 2022. Its premise is that the five-day week is outmoded and that a 4 day week provides as much, if not more productivity while improving the lives of individuals and broader society.
What is meant by the 4-day working week?
4 Day week Global makes clear that this means shorter weekly working hours overall for the same pay. For example, employees work 32 hours over four days, but are paid for 40 hours. UK employers in the press trialling this approach are diverse. While a more flexible approach might suit project roles or tech businesses, the trial also includes a component supply business and several in the professional services and banking sectors.
However, an alternative approach taken by other businesses is that an individual continues to work the same number of hours but compressed into fewer days so that, for example, they work 40 hours over four days rather than five. While this may free up an extra non-working day, working greater hours during each working day, it could throw up its own issues for employers. What is important is that the employer is clear in what it is seeking to achieve and what the potential impact is on its business and staff. It will need to weigh up the potential benefits and downsides and consider the practicalities as to how to effectively implement the change.
- Green benefits – reducing the number of days employees have to commute into work, as well as reducing the amount of energy required to service an office full time, should reduce an organisation's carbon footprint. This will bring tangible environmental benefits as well as creating a positive story on sustainability.
- Wellbeing benefit – allowing staff to benefit from a 3-day weekend will provide better work/life balance and may give some the opportunity to pursue hobbies and passions outside work. This in turn could boost productivity.
- Good for PR – Some employers, such as Atom bank, are already positioning their adoption of the 4-day week as something which marks them out as a progressive employer. Employers may adopt the model to become an 'employer of choice'.
- Good for diversity – Those with childcare or other caring responsibilities may find it attractive and this, in turn, could boost the diversity profile of an organisation.
- Increase in productivity – If the 4-day week creates a happier, more engaged workforce, this is likely to translate into increased productivity. Studies to date have borne this out and the 4-day week pilot will monitor for increased productivity.
- Going the extra mile - Depending on how the 4-day week is implemented, employers may actually get more than 4 days from employees if it turns out they agree to be available on the fifth day in order to complete project work or be available for clients.
- Risk of burnout – this is likely to be a significant risk for those working compressed hours. Those with childcare responsibilities may actually lose, rather than gain, time with family on most days. This could exacerbate the 'mother penalty', which was much talked about as a downside of working from home during the pandemic.
- Difficult for employer to monitor performance - Everyone has a different idea of pulling their weight and, unless the work is capable of being measured in a very precise way, an employer may find it hard to determine whether performance is actually dropping or increasing for particular employees.
- Could be divisive – Resentment may arise amongst colleagues if it is felt that some are pulling their weight more than others.
- Risk of conflict of interest - Someone could work for a competitor on the fifth day, or else take on other work which compromises their ability to devote themselves to their main job.
- Working time issues – If employees work compressed hours, or else take on extra work on their fifth day and beyond, it may become harder for them to take breaks and/or for the employer to monitor compliance with the Working Time Regulations.
- Risk of sex discrimination claims – Existing part time workers could bring claims for sex discrimination if an employer does not offer to 'match' the offer of fewer hours for the same pay for them. This is a radical concept, but one which the 4-day week project advocates. Revisiting existing flexible work arrangements may be a bureaucratic headache but cannot be avoided if an employer wishes to be equitable.
Any employer wishing to implement a 4-day week will have to consider the practicalities as well as the communications with employees. We consider some of these below.
- Is this an informal working arrangement or will it be a change to terms and conditions? If intended as an informal working arrangement, could this become an implied contractual change over time? Are people given the choice to opt in and what if some refuse to move to the 4-day week? The lack of clarity could give rise to disputes further down the line about expectations and requirements.
- Should there be a trial period for this new way of working? If the change becomes permanent, should an employer reserve the right to change it back again and, if some but not others object, will this lead to a two-tier workforce?
- Does the viability of a 4-day week depend on the type of work being done and the nature of the client or customer base? Are there some types of work where this can be ruled out?
- Should anything be written down in a policy and, if so, how fleshed out should this be? As the 4-day week will be an experiment for most employers, perhaps the less said the better in the initial stages.
- Which days will people have off, typically Mondays or Fridays?
- Will there need to be a rota in some roles for customer continuity?
- What happens if people work additional hours on "day off"? Will their pay and holiday entitlement be affected?
The 4-day week is likely to catch on in some sectors or workplaces and not others. While the types of industry that have already adopted the 4-day week (under the auspice of the 4-day week Global) have tended to be in gaming, fintech and design, it is less clear whether the model would suit less project-based work and where client demand is hard to predict. The pilot will measure productivity and many employers will want to be sure, before they dip their toe in the water, that productivity will not suffer in the long term.