You are currently viewing How flexible is a four-day week?

How flexible is a four-day week?

The 4-day week is not a single animal, and some versions of it are smarter and more flexible than others. Here we explore the concept, its different versions, and look at some of the pros and cons of emerging practice

Over the past two years there has been renewed momentum behind moves towards a four-day working week. High profile trials have taken place in numerous countries, and an international campaign has raised awareness and tried to set out a unified approach. In the UK, the Trade Unions Congress has come out in support and the opposition Labour Party at the last election proposed introducing a 32-hour working week if it got into power. Governments in New Zealand, Iceland and Scotland are looking at ways to introduce the four-day week as standard.

The key feature of this new movement towards a four-day week is that it proposes a reduction in hours with no reduction in pay. This distinguishes it from the more familiar compressed working week which involves doing – by choice or by the remit of the employer – the full five-days work in four days, or ten days work in nine days.

Advocates see it as a call to increase efficiency and focus on results. So the new kind of four-day week should involve not only an improved working life for employees, but also improved productivity – i.e. producing at least the same output but with reduced time-input.

What are the potential benefits?

According to Andrew Barnes and Charlotte Lockhart of the 4-Day Week Global campaign, there is a range of benefits that have been demonstrated in trials and case studies. These include:

  • Performance levels maintained
  • Significantly improved work-life balance
  • Reduced stress
  • Reduced traffic on the roads
  • Men taking bigger responsibility in domestic/family life.

Perpetual Guardian, where Barnes was Managing Director, introduced the four-day week initially as a trial, with the results evaluated by Auckland University Business School. There was a 24% uplift in employees’ sense of wellbeing, a 7% reduction in stress and no adverse impact on performance.

At the end of their four-day week trial, Microsoft Japan reported a 40% increase in productivity, with more efficient meetings, reduced printing and 92% of those involved saying they were happier with these arrangements.

In Iceland, Reykjavík City Council and the national government ran trials for more than 2,500 workers. The trial was monitored by the think-tank Autonomy. The extensive report shows that for participating departments service levels were maintained and productivity in some cases increased. If you’re looking for detail of how the four-day week impacted numerous different kinds of work, this report is worth following up.

Other companies across the globe have implemented this work arrangement or are signing up for trials. The largest trial is about to start in the UK. More than 40 companies have signed up already, and the trials will be followed and evaluated by researchers from Oxford and Cambridge universities.

How is it that performance and productivity are maintained or even improved?

There are a number of reasons why advocates of the four-day week believe it’s not only possible but also desirable to aim to do a whole week’s work in four days. For the most part, the trials seem to bear out their optimism.

Key reasons are:

  • The focus is shifted from time spent at work to a focus on fulfilling the goals of the work
  • Earlier studies have shown that many employees – particularly knowledge workers – think that less than half their typical day is actually spent on productive work
  • There is some upskilling involved, particularly for managers unfamiliar with focusing on results
  • People at all levels are encouraged to innovate and find smarter ways to achieve objectives
  • People are more motivated to focus on achieving their goals when they feel their employer is supporting their wellbeing
  • Reductions in stress are translated into better performance.

The approach advocated by the 4 Day Week Global campaign sets as a first principle thinking through what productivity is for different kinds of work and establishing productivity measures. This is very much in line with our approach in Smart Flexibility , and should apply to all kinds of changes to work practices.

We should note, however, that while productivity improvements may occur overall in the Iceland and Perpetual Guardian cases, the evaluations also found parts of the organisations where this did not happen. In the latter, some instances of increased stress were reported as people struggled to complete tasks in the four days, or found themselves working compressed working weeks, i.e. working longer days and not achieving any reduction in hours overall

Is a four-day week always a four-day week?

Surrealish clock, blue skies and clouds - with apologies to Magritte : "Ceci n'est pas une horloge"
When time is not all it seems to be. With apologies to Magritte.

When we get into the detail, we find that what is reported as a four-day week often isn’t the recommended form advocated by the Global Campaign.

Moving a 37.5 hour work week into four days ought to translate into 30 hours in total. However, many of the implementations in fact opt for 32 hours, with 4 x8 days as the new standard. Atom Bank, which hit the headlines last November, is in fact introducing a 34-hour week. It’s a move from 7.5 hour days to longer 8.5 hour days.

What we’re seeing with such implementations is really a variation of compressed working week. This new work-week is also being portrayed in both the media and in recruitment advertising as offering a 3-day weekend. This has obvious attractions, especially in the wake of the “great resignation” and high competition in recruiting talent.

The job search engine Adzuna reports there has been a significant increase in vacancies offering a four-day week. In January 2017 there were 14,284 jobs advertised as four-days per week. In January 2022, it was 26,759. However, many (if not most) of these roles are advertised as part-time, rather than as being with full-time pay.

So what are the varieties of four-day week?

  • The innovative offer: do your work in four days with full pay, and no increase in hours per day
  • The compressed working week: do your work in four days, with full pay, with longer working days
  • Part-time: advertised as four days with pro rata pay
  • Reduced hours: the offer to reduce existing hours with pro rata pay cut.

All this tends to come under the umbrella of “flexible working”. But it’s hardly flexible – especially if it’s mandated.

From the Smart Working point of view, I see two problems:

  1. Talking about “four days” and “thirty/thirty-four hours”, the emphasis is still strongly on the time input, rather than the results output.
  2. There’s a risk of compromising the trust-based culture, choice and autonomy that are central to smart and flexible working, in favour of a rigid focus on presence.

What I can foresee happening is a bonanza coming for vendors of time-recording software, and possibly an increase in the surveillance of employees’ working practices.

The urge to control often stalks innovation like the dark shadow of working practices past

In some ways, that would mirror the bonanza that vendors of desk-booking and occupancy-tracking systems are currently enjoying as organisations struggle with their implementations of hybrid working. Perhaps it boils down to attempts to marry traditional mindsets with new possibilities for trust-based and results-focused flexibility. The urge to control often stalks innovation like the dark shadow of working practices past.

When you think about it, if your focus is on working smarter, achieving a renewed focus on productivity, and managing by results, why talk hours at all? If someone wishes to do their work in 3 days, or spread it across 5, 6 or 7 days if the nature of the tasks allow, then why not?

And to be fair, I’ve had this discussion with Andrew Barnes, and he agreed it should be primarily about the results – increased productivity and wellbeing.

In this sense, the four-day week can be taken as stepping stone, or maybe a trojan horse, to working smarter and indeed enabling much wider choice and flexibility.

We then have to make sure that the hours-counters don’t turn back the clock to make it much less than it should be.