Between June and December 2022, almost 3,000 employees at 61 UK companies representing every sector from marketing and advertising to finance, manufacturing, food and retail took part in the country’s largest-ever trial of a four-day work week.
The world has been watching and reacting. Most have seized on the headline outcome that more than 90% of participating businesses have opted to continue with a shorter working week, with 18 adopting it permanently.
One UK newspaper described it as ‘a major breakthrough’, focusing on the perceived improvements in work-life balance. The majority of employers who took part in the project say they've seen productivity levels maintained alongside improvements in staff retention and wellbeing. Many have seen it as a responsible management reaction to employee burnout from the pandemic and a way of fighting back after the ‘great resignation’.
With wellbeing a major focus now for many firms, and so important for employee engagement, anything that lifts morale and loyalty is seen as a potential competitive advantage. As the chief executive of one bank put it, “It has really moved the dial on the mood. People are like, ‘Wow, that’s a great organization I’m working for here.’”
Is the 4-day work week your future businesss model?
Let’s look at the numbers. The pilot project ran for six months and was based on the 100-80-100 model, which means, workers got 100% pay for working 80% of their previous hours in exchange for a commitment to maintain 100% productivity.
Business revenue stayed broadly the same, there was a 65% reduction in the number of sick days, while 71% of employees reported lower levels of burnout. Of the 61 companies that took part, 56 say they will continue trying out the four-day week following the pilot, while 18 say they will make the change permanently.
These are impressive numbers, but should we be surprised? The notion of the four-day working week has been gathering global momentum. The World Economic Forum quotes a survey by the recruitment company Reed from 2021 that claimed “80% of people in the UK would prefer a four-day work week.”
Since November 2022, full-time workers in Belgium (both white-collar and blue-collar) have had the right to request a four-day work week. Under this scheme, full-time workers can ask their employer to work their usual full-time hours over four (longer) working days instead of five. (They also have the right to fully disconnect and ignore any requests from their bosses after hours without reprisal - which might come as a shock to more aggressive business leaders elsewhere.) A trial in New Zealand by Unilever saw a 34% drop in absenteeism, while in the US, the number of four-day week workers tripled between 1973-20181, with the number still growing.
But is it all good news? Perhaps not. The BBC also looked at firms where it didn’t work. For some, it added to burnout. The managing director of an engineering firm told reporters, “As opposed to 10 normal workdays, we found that employees would have nine extreme ones – once they got to their scheduled day off, they were exhausted.” For others, it simply isn't realistic because of lack of flexibility in the business need and the struggles and costs in finding cover for people’s days off.
At Davos, last year, there was discussion around the traditional view of the working week being “as old fashioned as a Ford Model T” and unfit for purpose. The four-day working week feels, for many, like a step in the right direction that has growing momentum. But what is not clear is how it will weather the likely impacts of an increasingly challenging economic environment and the employment ramifications of AI. But that’s another story that connects to larger, global social issues and concerns that we’ll look to explore in a future issue.