4-day working week: myth or reality?

In early June 2022, the UK launched a 4-day working week trial. The nationwide pilot involves 3,300 workers from over 70 companies from a range of sectors, including a local fish and chip shop in Wells-next-the-Sea, Norfolk.

For six months, staff will receive 100% of their pay in exchange for 80% of their time. Similar initiatives are afoot in Iceland, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. A coalition of organisations is co-ordinating them, including UK think tank Autonomy, the 4 Day Week UK Campaign and researchers at Cambridge University, Boston College, and Oxford University. The researchers will look at productivity levels and impact on the environment, along with gender equality. The wellbeing of employees will also be a key focus – the possible impact of an extra ‘day off’ on job and life satisfaction, stress levels, sleep, and general health.

Is the 4 day week a realistic proposition for a majority of companies?

While some see this as a more positive future of work taking shape, with improved work-life balance and wellbeing, others are a little less hopeful. The reduced time parameters should not give the impression of less total work, but rather work managed in less time, and, perhaps differently. That’s what we are interested to see in the trials. Employees are expected to maintain the same level of productivity on the reduced hours and this could lead us to some creative insights and new ways of doing things. But for those already struggling to manage their workload within 5 day week, with tasks often bleeding into the weekends, a 4 day week seems remote (and not in the hybrid sense). The famous brand-enriching ‘20% of your time for special projects’ rarely panned out in reality for some employees. Reducing hours might be harder for those working in IT, Finance, and HR. The servicing of customers still happens on Fridays, so to think of shutting shop for one day is too simplistic.

We know that a shift towards more flexible work is taking root. A Kellogg (food company) and Indeed (jobs site) survey in 2022 found 93% of respondents want to work for an employer who supports and encourages work-life balance. And that 40% would be unlikely to take a job at a company in the absence of a flexible or hybrid work policy. They were split on the higher salary question – 50% would forfeit flexible working for a higher salary, and some are still nervous that being away from the office too much impacts their career progression.

What we hope is that the 4-day pilots will provide a rich ground for experimentation and learning. To nudge our views in terms of what’s possible, just like the world pandemic has done. And if they can drive clarity around organisational priorities, how we measure what matters to us, and how we set our people free to achieve what matters in the best way possible, these will be giant leaps forward.

What people actually want most is more choice, not less.

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