As companies across the UK test out shorter weeks, it’s only a matter of months until we know whether it makes a difference.
It’s been a fortnight since around 70 companies across the UK began a four-day working week as part of a pilot scheme across the country looking into working patterns.
Over the course of six months, employees will be given full pay to work reduced hours to see if they end up being more productive. Academics from Oxford and Cambridge University and experts at Boston College in the US are overseeing the trial in partnership with the independent think tank Autonomy.
“This comes just as the debate between advocates for traditional ways of working and staff rebelling against office returns is really heating up, meaning the timing couldn’t be more perfect,” says Molly Johnson-Jones, founder of Flexa Careers, a service that provides information on the true flexibility of companies.
Having the opportunity to work from home during the pandemic has also made employees rethink the rigidity of a nine-to-five work day in the office.
“In the same way that presenteeism doesn’t equate to productivity (despite what some politicians and business leaders would have us believe), nor do working very specific, fixed hours have a positive bearing on output. The trial should prove this unequivocally and put this debate to bed,” Johnson-Jones adds.
Thryve, a German technology recruitment company based in London, introduced the four-day week last year and reported more than a 30% boost in sales.
“As we emerge from the disruption and uncertainty of the last two years and enter the post-pandemic economy, now is the time for business leaders to rethink their existing working practices in a way that will reposition them for future growth,” says John Lennon, the company’s managing director. “Our experience has shown that the benefits and returns generated by adopting a four-day-week business model significantly outweigh those of not doing so.”
The British rail ticketing service Seatfrog has also brought in a four-day work week. Founder Iain Griffin introduced it to the company for nine months before making it an official part of its ways of working last year. He has seen around a 15-20% increase in the output of his company and he can now also spend Fridays supporting and spending time with his wife and twins.
“We wanted to experiment with a new way of working, to give better balance and to see if it increased productivity,” he says, adding that his staff are now wiser and faster in how they approach tasks. “Our team cadence is unbelievably high, staff happiness scores are brilliant and the team is raring to go on Monday mornings.”
The four-day work week is not something that could work for every sector. Emma McGrath, a professional support solicitor at Citation, who provides health and safety and employment law services to small-to-medium-sized businesses across the UK, says that not all workers can carry out their jobs effectively with reduced hours.
“If businesses are considering this, they need to first assess whether the work can be realistically fitted into a four-day week,” she says. “Some organisations need a constant presence – for example, in the care sector – and at the least, it wouldn’t be possible to offer the same day off to all employees.”
Emily M Austen, CEO of Emerge, an award-winning London-based PR agency, agrees.
“There is a natural divide between what employees want and what business owners feel is most productive for their businesses,” she says. “Client service industries, particularly creative agencies, such as PR, marketing and advertising, provide an unworkable reality for a four-day working week. Our time must mirror that of our clients in order to be able to offer excellent services.”
Being unavailable could mean that Austen’s company loses clients, which led her to make the decision not to introduce a four-day work week for her agency. “With a constantly evolving news agenda, being unavailable or reducing working hours, and therefore being at odds with client working patterns, disrupts the ability to provide the necessary services and creates tension in the working relationship.”
But despite the divide, most employers agree with incorporating some of the trial’s philosophies. “Even if an employer doesn’t feel it can offer a four-day week across the board, it can still choose to promote a culture where achievements rather than presenteeism are key,” says McGrath. “Stopping out-of-hours emails and encouraging employees to leave on time goes a long way towards this, as well as shortening meetings and ensuring they end on time.”
All in all, the four-day work week is about finding balance, and it’s only a matter of time until there is hard evidence as to whether it works or not.
“As long as hours are being reduced, rather than simply compressed into fewer days, I have no doubt that they will be happier and healthier too,” says Johnson-Jones. “An extra day off will go a considerable way towards creating healthy separation between professional and personal lives and improving work-life balance. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want that.”