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Is a 4-day working week the way forward?

Ever since Henry Ford implemented the 5-day, 40-hour working week at the Ford Motor Company nearly 100 years ago, a five-days-on, two-days-off rhythm has become deeply imbedded in our culture. But now, as employees and businesses begin to value different ways of working, the four-day working week is growing traction with increasing numbers of businesses across multiple countries. A 2023 YouGov survey found that 78% of employees would be in favour of a 4-day working week, but what does this look like in practice?

The benefits of a 4-day week

This comes after a worldwide scheme trialled the 4-day week with no loss of pay. Led by thinktank Autonomy and researchers at Cambridge University and Boston College, the trial boasts some impressive statistics – including that 92% of the businesses involved continued the 4-day week after the pilot ended, with 18 companies, including Atom Bank and JMK Solicitors, making the change permanent. In the UK, over 2900 employees were involved in the trial, with many preferring the change. But what was it that made the pilot so successful?

Effect on wellbeing

Perhaps the biggest argument in favour of a 4-day week is its impact on wellbeing. I’m sure everyone has, at points, felt stressed, burnt-out or spread too thin thanks to their job, feelings which can impact your personal life as well as your work. However, 71% of workers on a 4-day week reported lower levels of burn-out as well as less anxiety. In the global trials many even reported a reduction in family conflict brought about by feeling less burnt-out at home. 

Simply put, having more time to spend doing things you love – whether that’s spending time with family, going to a yoga class or just watching Netflix in bed, will inevitably improve mental wellbeing and the work-life balance. As we all know, happy workers = better staff retention. An employee happy with their work-life balance will be less likely to quit, meaning you can spend your time (and importantly, pennies) doing great work, rather than searching for new staff.

Increased productivity

In 2019, Microsoft Japan introduced a 4-day week and reported a 40% boost in productivity. Employees suggested that having less time at work leads them to properly identify their priorities and prioritise focus time, or in other words, avoiding scheduling meetings that could have probably been an email. Additionally, 40% of people working a 4-day week experience fewer issues with sleeping, and less fatigued employees will likely be able to get more done whilst at work. The trial also found that a 4-day week led to a 65% reduction in sick days, meaning a general decrease in presenteeism and absenteeism.

Could a 4-day week be the key to increasing productivity?

A positive step for gender equality

Despite leaps and bounds in gender equality, and shifts in attitudes towards gender roles, studies still show that women shoulder the majority of unpaid domestic labour – even if both partners are in full-time work. Other women may choose to work part-time to allow time for this domestic labour which often limits their career progression and earning capabilities. 

A shorter working week could allow an extra day to be freed up for both partners to spend more time at home or with children, and provide an opportunity to help redistribute the domestic labour more fairly. Introducing a reduced work pattern for all genders would also destigmatise part-time and flexible working for women. A company with a 4-day week lends itself to being a more equal and equitable workspace for every employee. 

Cutting costs

Switching to a 4-day week may have a wider-reaching impact on a company’s overheads too. A shorter working week could have a 20% reduction in the running costs (and carbon emissions) associated with a physical workspace – from the cost of electricity to teabags. There’s also the possibility of a business actually making money by moving to a 4-day week. On a non-working day, an office could be sublet to another company or hired out for events, acting as a second income source for the business.

What are the cons?

That all sounds well and good, but as always, there are two sides to every story. What are the potential drawbacks of this new way of working? 

An increase in stress

While for some employees, a shorter working week would reduce work-related stress due to having more time off, for others, the opposite may be true. 

As a culture, we are so accustomed to a five-day week that some employees may feel their workload has increased when tasked with squeezing five days’ worth of tasks into 4 days. This is particularly apparent in companies who choose to compress working hours into four 10-hour days, rather reduce working hours to 80%. Working longer days, even with an extra day off, can lead to employees feeling overworked – the exact opposite of what a 4-day week aims for. 

Communication hurdles

A 4-day week with more limited time could mean finding timeslots for meetings with clients and colleagues proves difficult. If everyone in one business was off on Fridays, it could create obstacles to communicating with external companies or customers – a client who worked a 5-day week may send an email on Thursday afternoon expecting a response Friday morning and could be irked to find out the response wouldn’t come until four days later. A reduced availability of working hours could hinder timely responses and interactions, and impact business operations. 

A question of practicality

For many industries a 4-day week just isn’t feasible. Healthcare and emergency services are obvious examples, whilst the retail and hospitality industries are already struggling with staff shortages and would find it near-impossible to find enough staff to cover hours if everyone’s working week was reduced to a 4-day week. Unless, of course, customers are willing to see a reduction in opening hours from their favourite shops and pubs – unlikely at best. This could create disparity between industries and companies who could and couldn’t partake in a shorter working week. 

Is it really addressing the underlying causes of low morale?

Sure, an extra day to spend doing thing you love seems like it would be a sure-fire way to improve your morale, but it may be a short-lived benefit. Underlying factors of low employee morale could include lack of training, lack of trust from superiors, lack of company culture or micro-management. Unless problems such as these are addressed and resolved, even adopting a 4-day week may not improve employee wellbeing and satisfaction. 

How could office design facilitate a 4-day week?

Hot desking, like here at L&C, may suit employees on a 4-day week.

Switching to a 4-day week would make it even more important to maximise productivity, collaboration and community, meaning your workspace design may have to be rethought. Creating a Destination Office would be key to encourage employees to come into the office for their working days. 

A business shifting to a 4-day week must first determine the employees’ third day off. This would dramatically impact how many employees were in an office at a time – if everyone at a company was off on a Friday but in the office Monday-Thursday, it would need to remain a full capacity office. Whereas if employees were assigned a day in the week that differed team to team, a smaller number of employees in each day would allow a workspace to be smaller or more compact. 

If a business was working on a rota that allowed employees to pick and choose their third day off, it would be beneficial to hot-desk. Hot-desking would ensure the employees who were in each day could sit together, communicate and collaborate whilst reducing siloing. 

Switching to four 10-hour days rather than cutting the working hours to 80% would call for an office with more breakout areas and variation in working zones. That way, employees could move around the office throughout the longer day and work in an area appropriate for the current task in hand. More and improved breakout areas would allow employees to properly switch off during their breaks to prevent burn-out on longer days. 

It’s clear no one size fits all when it comes to deciding if a 4-day week would suit your company. Whatever your thoughts on a shorter working week, it makes for an interesting discussion about what we’re really looking to get out of our jobs and employees, and recognising what employees need to thrive – whether that’s in a 4 or 5-day working week. 

If you’re inspired to improve the workplace experience of your office, get in touch at 01225 485 600 or why not schedule a chat with Charlie. We’ve been creating some of the UK’s best workspaces for over thirty years, so we’re happy to help with all your workplace experience needs.

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