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Will a 4-day week become the new normal…?

Since Covid-19 first hit the UK in January 2020, the world of work has changed beyond recognition and seems unlikely ever to revert to pre-pandemic patterns. The lockdowns mandated many of the UK workforce shifting to home-working and, despite a widespread return to the workplace, many have retained the flexibility of home or hybrid working. Enhanced flexibility and the associated improvement to work-life balance have, arguably, become the norm and are now demanded by Gen Z and the wider workforce.

A four-day working week has been, and continues to be, trialled around the world, and the positive outcomes for businesses and staff alike are widely publicised. Will this model stem the Great Resignation and transform the future of work and, if so, what should employers be thinking about?

What is the 4-day week?

Pilots of a 4-day working week have already taken place in the US, Ireland and the UK and are being rolled out across other continents.

Between June and December 2022, 2,900 workers in 61 companies in the UK took part in a trial organised by 4 Day Week Global. This was not a trial of compressed hours, squeezing normal working hours into just four days. Instead, the workers and companies signed up to a “100-80-100” model, whereby the workers received 100% of their pay for working 80% of the time, in exchange for 100% productivity.

You may think this is idealistic/unrealistic/great for workers but bad for businesses but the results, published in February 2023, are persuasive.

Of the 61 companies that participated, 56 are continuing with the four-day week, with 18 confirming the policy is a permanent change. Results included:

  • enhanced employee well-being (reduced stress, burnout, anxiety, fatigue and sleep issues; increased exercise; and improved mental and physical health);
  • improved work-life balance (including balancing work with family and social commitments, household jobs, care responsibilities and social life);
  • increased revenue for the businesses involved;
  • reduced sickness absence (by almost two-thirds) and loss of staff, and increased hiring;
  • enhanced benefits for women in some areas including: greater outcomes in relation to burnout, mental health, life and job satisfaction; and enhanced gender equality, as men have adopted a greater share of childcare and home responsibilities; and
  • environmental benefits due to reduced commuting time and more sustainable travel choices.

How would your business implement this?

Whilst the positive outcomes of the trials cannot be disputed, many businesses are grappling with how (and if) this model could work within their specific sector, industry or organisational structure, as a “Friday off” model would simply not work.

However, the trials have not mandated one particular type of working time reduction or four-day week, as long as pay was maintained at 100% and employees had a “meaningful” reduction in work time. Businesses have developed a range of different models, including “Friday off” models (or a different day), staggering time/days off across their staff to ensure overall continuity of service or an annualised model whereby staff work full-time during peak periods but take the days back at other times. So, theoretically, this model should be workable for all businesses.

What next?

Whilst the overall percentage of businesses adopting this model is currently very small, this movement is developing momentum and may, ultimately, be transformational. In the future, a 4-day week may be as commonplace and demanded by workers as hybrid working is now?

Before moving to a shorter working week, you might want to explore the resources available from 4 Day Week Global and other organisations and should also consider some of the “tricky” questions, such as:

  • What would a 4-day week look like for your business?
Would/could you offer a set day off (with or without slightly increased hours on the four working days) or would a staggered or annualised approach (or something else) work better?
Would you consult with staff regarding what model they might want? What if staff want different things?
  • How would your proposed model apply to part-time staff?
For example, will someone who currently works 4 days per week (80% FTE) continue to do so but receive a pay increase in order to receive the same as “full-time” staff, or would they reduce their working hours pro rata (to 80% of 4 days per week)?
What if a part-time employee would prefer to spread their hours over a 5-day working week (thereby working fewer hours per day), rather than having a full day off (and working more hours on their working days)?
Consult with any part-time staff individually and tailor your approach as needed as a “one-size-fits-all” approach would be risky.
  • Would you want to undertake a temporary trial before committing to a permanent change? You would need to clearly communicate the duration and parameters of any trial, including what would constitute “success”, and retain the right not to implement the model permanently if it does not prove workable for the business.
  • Consider what framework and rules will apply to the new model including:
your expectations of staff;
how productivity will be measured and monitored;
how working time and rest breaks will be monitored (as you must ensure that workers are neither underworking nor overworking); and
how abuse of the model will be addressed etc.
All key information should be enshrined within a policy which is distributed and explained to all staff at the outset.
  • What if productivity declines once the “honeymoon period” is over and staff grow accustomed to working a 4-day week? How will you measure and/or address this?

How this will unfold over the next few years may depend on the Government’s approach, including whether they might incentivise businesses to trial or move to a reduced working week and/or to offer some cover or protection in the event that such a trial or move causes a business loss.

The 4 Day Week Campaign is also lobbying the government to encourage change by legislating to give staff the right to request a four-day pattern. Whatever happens, this is an area to watch and start reflecting on.

These notes have been prepared for the purpose of articles only. They should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice.

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