Work, and our perspective on it, has shifted considerably in recent years. The pandemic brought on an unavoidable rise of remote and flexible working for office workers; simultaneously, it has highlighted the strain of overwork, stress and burnout. And in looking for solutions to this world of problems, the four-day working week has a stronger and stronger case.
While shortening the standard work week from five days to four is not a completely new concept, it is one that has gained traction in recent years – with the latest trials coming out of Iceland showing the move to a shorter work week an “overwhelming success”. Now, Unilever is set to trial a four-day work week in Australia, after a successful 18-month trial in New Zealand.
Proponents argue that it not only improves worker well-being but can increase or stabilise productivity, while helping to balance the distribution of jobs. On the other hand, naysayers suggest that it would be too logistically challenging and worry that it’s not economically viable to pay the same salary for fewer days.
So other than trials, what would it take to actually make a four-day working week happen? We spoke to HR leaders, the campaigners behind the 4 Day Week Campaign and employees who’ve actually made it happen about the benefits and potential pitfalls of implementing a four-day week, what barriers they faced, and how we can overcome them.
Why a four-day week?
Joe Ryle, a campaign officer for the 4 Day Week Campaign, says there are three main factors: it would be good for the economy, good for workers and good for the environment.
“For workers, it's gonna be better for mental health and wellbeing,” he tells Refinery29. “We know that... overwork, stress and burnout is prevalent in the workplace. A four-day working week is about giving everyone a better work-life balance.” On the economic side, a four-day week doesn’t hamper productivity — he says it actually can increase it.
“The more and more we see companies adopting [a four-day week] and governments implementing pilot schemes, the more evidence there is to suggest that when you implement it, productivity either goes up or at least stays the same”. When workers are better rested and more motivated, they perform better. As for the environment, less time spent working decreases time spent commuting and the amount of high energy consumption used for technology and in offices. On top of this, he points to more time spent engaging in local democracy, gender parity and a greater distribution of jobs as other benefits.
Jessica Bailey is Head of Partnerships and Client Development at PTHR, a HR consulting company that adopted a four-day week during the pandemic. She says that the pandemic, and its impact on the employees, specifically spurred on the change. “The company lost a lot of business when the pandemic struck because all of our work was in-person workshops and training,” she tells R29. “Overnight everything was cancelled for the year ahead and we had to quickly develop a plan to survive.” While they did survive, the amount of work needed to stay afloat led to employee burnout. “After noticing that everyone was just exhausted and struggling to keep momentum going, our founder introduced wellness Wednesdays”.
It’s simple: empowering employees to work in the way that’s best for them boosts engagement, productivity, and business results.
Jessica Fuhl is a Director at Sage People, a cloud HR system, and author of Sage’s research report Changing expectations of HR. She says that from an HR perspective, the introduction of flexible working in all its forms is imperative for companies that want to attract and keep their employees. “It’s simple: empowering employees to work in the way that’s best for them boosts engagement, productivity, and business results. Progressive, people-focused companies know this, and that’s why we’re seeing top employers move to more flexible ways of working, like compressed hours and four-day weeks. Organisations that don’t recognise that employees want to work this way may risk, in the future, losing their best people to other companies that do offer more flexible ways of working.”
What are some practical barriers to a 4-day work week?
Despite the many benefits to support the four-day week, implementing it isn’t always easy. Joe points to how different sectors like retail or hospitality have different business demands and can’t just close the office for one day a week. But while this does make it more difficult, it’s far from impossible. “Part of the answer, in that case, is being more smart with rota patterns so that not everyone has the same day off, but people have different days off to allow everyone to work a four-day week.”
Fuhl says that whether a four-day week is right for a company depends on several factors: “do the employees want to reduce their hours? How would working different, or longer hours, affect childcare? Is the business set up to allow for this different working pattern? And would organisations be able to implement this fairly across the company?” Finding the answers to these questions can help reveal any practical barriers that may need to be overcome. And the best solutions will emerge through a thorough consultation process with the company employees.
At PTHR, they found that through flexibility in their approach to a four-day week, as well as constant communication between employees about their needs and challenges, meant that any practical kinks were ironed out. The main issue Bailey said they encountered was if a client wanted work on a Wednesday. However, establishing that framework actually helped them curate their clientele. “Typically we would have a three-day workshop or something like that so that was a little bit of a hurdle, but it didn't take long for clients to really get on board with it. It actually attracted the right clients to us — similar, like-minded people. ”
On the money side, it was harder as a small company of under 20 people to sustain full pay for four days. But as the workers would rather have their Wednesdays to decompress than return to a five-day week, they found an arrangement where they worked slightly longer hours on their workdays to increase their pay while still not getting their full former salary. This is an arrangement that they all felt comfortable with.
This is why the 4 Day Week Campaign will never advise implementing this overnight. “We always recommend that a full consultation with workers is the best way to do it, to make sure there's enough buy-in and to implement it potentially over six months to one year,” says Joe. “That way there's time to iron out any difficulties.”
What are ideological barriers?
Beyond practical issues, the concept of a four-day week can be interpreted as a form of slacking off. And getting those who are resistant to the idea to buy in can be hard. “While forward-thinking organisations give their people the autonomy to work in the way that’s best for them,” says Fuhl, “less progressive organisations and business leaders might worry that less time at a desk, or not working the traditional 9-5 five days a week, means decreased productivity.” Though studies have shown this is not true, the idea that more work equals better is hard to shake.
However, he says that looking at the current data as well as looking at past shifts in how we work provides a template for how these ideological barriers can shift.
“Look back at history. The weekend was won with no reduction in pay for workers and there was a gradual reduction in hours since then until about the 1980s. But since the 1980s working hours have not reduced at all, despite greater automation and new technology. We're overdue a reduction in working hours.” Given how much solving the ‘productivity puzzle’ has been a priority for years, the thing that we haven’t yet tried is reducing instead of increasing hours. But as more people do so, the greater volume of evidence will disprove the theory that fewer hours means slacking off.
How to overcome these barriers
The practical and ideological barriers to a four-day work week can all be taken on, Fuhl says, through active and thorough engagement in what employees actually want. “Although [a four-day week] is a great benefit for attracting talent, the advice to HR leaders is to think about your current employees first. Ask them what would make them more productive; this isn’t the only way to create a better work-life balance for your employees. Would they rather be given the flexibility to manage their own hours across the week? Can you support working parents with more flexible hours that fit in around school times and vacations? The only way you’ll know the answer to these questions is if you ask them.”
Bailey says that the key is for people to embrace employee wellbeing: “Employers should recognise just how important wellbeing is and that it's not going to be a negative thing: it can only be an increased production or just happier healthier employees."
And for the people who are still resistant, Joe points to the fact that the more people who opt in or give it a go means that greater credence is given to the idea.
“Some of the survey data out of the last couple of months shows at least 20% of companies considering it, 5% of companies have already done it. There's pilots now in Scotland, Ireland, Spain, national level government backed pilots, and we're looking at something similar in Wales at the moment. The movement is definitely building.”
"Everyone's talked about building back better from the pandemic, from the Prime Minister to extinction rebellion,” he adds. "So surely, if we're gonna build that better, let's build a better world of work than we had going into the pandemic.”