The four-day working week isn’t a new idea, but it could be one that businesses find really rewarding to look into right now. Academic papers and experimental trials have explored the concept since at least the 1970s1. What's new is the fact that, in theory, technology could now make a "compressed working week" a reality for millions of Brits.
More companies are trialling a shorter working week, more surveys suggest the workforce is interested in this idea, and more than ever, it feels like we should be able to strike a better balance between being productive at work and enjoying our free time. So, why isn’t the concept widespread?
What does a four-day working week actually mean?
Does it mean working 40 hours compressed into four days instead of five, or does it mean working four eight-hour days? Actually, it can mean either, or some other variation. There isn’t a universal definition of a four-day working week.
For instance, around 20 years ago, France lowered the legal definition of a working week to a total of 35 hours distributed in any way across the week (although many professionals simply work until jobs are done). In contrast, in 2018 Microsoft trialled a literal four-day week at its office in Japan by giving workers Fridays off (with paid leave) for a month. Other firms use a rotating schedule, in which half of the employees have Mondays off and the other half have Fridays off.
The common goal is to improve productivity and employees’ work-life balance while working fewer hours.
Who wants it?
According to a recent White Paper by Henley Business School in which over 500 British business leaders and 2,000 employees were surveyed, 69% of workers said they would enjoy their week more if they could work for four days instead of five. Moreover, 76% said they thought working fewer days would improve their overall quality of life.
Workers of all ages show an interest in this new working week, but Generation Z and Millennials show more interest than older generations.
What are the reported benefits?
Proponents of the four-day working week feel that it shouldn’t be necessary to work a 40-hour, five-day week to achieve the same, or higher, productivity.
Microsoft’s month-long shorter working week experiment was reported to have produced a 39.9% increase in productivity compared to the previous year when employees worked Monday to Friday instead of Monday to Thursday. Electricity consumption also fell 23.1% and the number of pages printed decreased by 58.7%. However, the press release points out that the result of the experiment may not have been solely due to staff taking Fridays off (other measures, such as a 30-minute time limit on meetings, were simultaneously trialled).
Going further back, in 2016, Pursuit Marketing in Glasgow reported seeing a 29.5% improvement in productivity in the two years since its 120 employees started having Fridays off. More recently, New Zealand trust business Perpetual Guardian, which supervises nearly NZ$200bn in assets, switched its 240 employees to a four-day week and reported a 20% increase in productivity.
Perhaps just as attractive to companies now, is the fact that, Henley Business School estimates that there have been £92 billion in savings made by businesses who have implemented this shorter working week. 63% of companies who offer flexible working said it helps them attract the right talent. And, as in Microsoft’s experiment, there’s a benefit to the environment, as 66% of employers offering this working week said employees make fewer car journeys.
When asked what employees would do with their day off, the most chosen answer was meeting with family (66%), followed by meeting friends (63%) and doing more home cooking (55%). The least chosen activity was taking extra work elsewhere (23%).
What are the downsides?
Four-day weeks haven’t been successful for every business that’s tried the concept. London-based science research foundation The Wellcome Trust scrapped the idea after realising the scheme would be unfair on back-office staff and roles that couldn’t accommodate the extra flexibility. There was also a concern that compressing work into a Monday to Thursday period could have lowered productivity instead of increasing it.
The shorter week also works better for some sectors and business types than others. Call centres, security companies, and retail businesses that need to meet demand and fulfil promises to customers around the clock could face dissatisfaction by shortening their hours. This is particularly concerning for small businesses, 91% of which said it would be "very difficult" to offer the four-day working week because it affects availability to customers.
Likewise, companies that adopt a shorter week in highly competitive industries, in which employees are already up against it to meet demand, could be outcompeted by those who are willing to stick to five days in the office. And even if a business can afford to switch, if its clients don’t, they could be frustratingly unreachable for 20% of the working week.
Could a four-day working week help my business?
If employees really do waste an average of 142 minutes per day doing admin, paperwork, and attending meetings instead of doing more important jobs, switching to a four-day working week could be possible for many businesses – providing time is used more efficiently. We have seen how many companies have been able to adapt their working practices, becoming more flexible and accommodating for a remote work force, and – as a natural extension of this – the four day working week could be something to be considered more seriously by many businesses in the future.
Whether it works for your business depends on what your customers or clients expect from you and whether your team is physically able to produce the required number of widgets or deliver the full service in a shorter timeframe. If they can, then the boost in morale and extra flexibility offered by a four-day week could help increase employee well-being, retain talent, and maximise productivity.
1. Google Scholar search for "four-day working week", February 2020.