What would you say if I offered you 100% of your salary and you only had to work four days a week? For the employees of 70 companies across the UK, this was their reality for the second half of 2022.
Over 3,300 employees from across 30 sectors have taken part in the 4-Day Week UK pilot programme. Each employee trialled the "80-100-100" model: working 80% of their standard working hours for 100% pay, in return for a commitment to provide 100% productivity.
The 4-Day Week Campaign joined forces with UK think tank Autonomy and researchers from Cambridge University, Oxford University and Boston College to coordinate the programme and assess workers' productivity and wellbeing. Similar schemes are running in tandem in the US and Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and Israel.
The results of the UK's four-day pilot programme will not be published until February but we can take a look at previous research and early themes emerging to assess whether "Happy Thursday" could find a permanent place in the office lexicon.
What are the benefits of a four-day week?
According to independent research by the Henley Business School, 66% of employees surveyed thought a four-day working week would mean they produced more work of a higher quality. Employers agreed with 64% reporting increased productivity, echoing a 2019 experiment where Microsoft, Japan also found a 40% increase in its productivity.
The BBC interviewed several participants of the four-day pilot programme who shared similar sentiments, expressing that shortening the working week had "forced us to be more pragmatic, more proactive and manage our time more effectively." This includes cancelling non-essential meetings or employees having to manage personal life tasks (e.g. attending health appointments or calling a utility provider) outside working hours because they had an additional day off to deal with these things. To achieve their 100% productivity commitment, some participant businesses introduced dedicated periods of task-focused work free from distractions like reviewing emails or answering phone calls. These early findings suggest that with planning and careful thought, productivity can increase despite a four-day week creating shorter timeframes for completing tasks.
Staff wellbeing and retaining talent
"The Great Resignation" saw record numbers of employees quitting their jobs in 2021 and as of March 2022, PwC reported that one in five workers were considering following suit. Combined with employees seeking wage increases to offset a genuine cost of living crisis driven by inflationary pressures, the focus of employers turns ever more to its people. The socio-economic challenges faced by employers (seeking to manage the cost of doing business) and employees (looking to pay their bills) manifests itself most starkly by the record strike action seen at the end of 2022. To best achieve financial balance employers will seek solutions, other than those founded on pay, that best attract, retain and engage their workers. So, staff satisfaction and retaining talent are at the forefront of employers' minds.
While salary dissatisfaction has consistently ranked as the most popular reason for resigning, a significant percentage of staff also cite poor work-life balance and impact on wellbeing. In one US survey, 45% of workers in 2021 left due to a lack of scheduling flexibility and 39% left because they were working too many hours. Similarly, the UK may see a third of its leavers resigning due to burnout.
Concerns around wellbeing has an impact even for employees who are not contemplating resignation. An overwhelming workload has been directly linked to one in four sickness-related absences and the Health and Safety Executive estimated that it caused 44% of all UK work-related stress, depression and anxiety. One Swedish trial reduced the workday by 2 hours for 17 random workplaces, with funding to recruit additional staff. All of the participating employees reported higher quality sleep, feeling less lethargic and reduced stress. A happy and healthy workforce is a present and productive one, and the four-day working week may be the tool to achieve this.
It is not just people who could benefit, but the planet too. Transport accounts for 23% of global carbon emissions, with 72% just from driving. The four-day week could lower the UK's carbon footprint by an estimated "127 million tonnes per year by 2025, [which is] the equivalent of taking 27 million cars off the road, effectively the entire UK private car fleet". After all, we can all recall the viral images during the Covid lockdown of clear skies in previously polluted cities and the extraordinarily clear blue waters of Venice (even if the dolphins in the Venetian canals were a disappointingly false rumour).
Is the four-day week here to stay?
With these potential benefits in mind, can we expect the four-day week to permanently permeate our working lives?
At the 4-Day pilot programme's halfway mark, 85% of participating businesses felt likely to continue with the new way of working. Outside of the pilot, 111 employers to-date have adopted the initiative and received accreditation from the 4-Day Week Campaign.
However, making the switch is not without its challenges. One of the major concerns of employers is being sufficiently available for clients, especially when those clients still operate on a traditional five-day week. This could be overcome by staggering employees' days off. However, this requires careful thought as research has shown higher employer control of work scheduling and reduced working hours can lead to increased intensity of work – a move that could actually increase employee stress. Some hesitant employees have also shared worries about their ability to sufficiently hand over to their colleagues. An alternative which is sometimes seen in research trials is to hire additional staff. However, the four-day work week operates on the assumption of paying existing staff their full salaries and with the increased operating costs of today's economy, simply increase their headcount is not likely to be viable for many businesses.
Further, research in 2021 showed a significant number of employees used their additional day off to take part in secondary employment or side hustles. This figure is likely to be higher now given the emerging cost-of-living crisis. Interestingly, a YouGov survey in 2014 found that 50% of employees would actually work an additional day for 20% more of their salary. This may undermine the four-day week's hailed benefits in relation to increased rest, reduced absenteeism and prevention of burnout. It may, also, make it harder for employers, adopting a four-day week, to receive the anticipated benefit of an employee's shorter working week.
The same 2021 study found that aside from further work, the extra day off saw an increase in shopping, eating out and tourism which would be beneficial for the economy. However, with soaring inflation putting a squeeze on disposable income, it is uncertain whether this would be a significant increase today. In fact, in an interview with the BBC, one participant of the 4-Day pilot programme questioned if the pilot had really been a "full-pelt stress test" of their business because of reduced customer orders caused by the generally poor economic environment.
Richard Nixon may have predicted the four-day work week "in the not-too-distant future" in 1956, but it remains to be seen whether the majority of employers can be convinced that the benefits outweigh the costs. The pandemic has revolutionised the look of the working world by bringing unprecedented flexibility but as operating costs of businesses soar, is now a realistic time push for further change and adopt the four-day week? For now, we shall have to wait and see the results that the 4-Day pilot programme yields.