People doing office work
People doing office work. Photo by Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash

The five-day working week; the 9-5 slog; the 42.5-hour toil: it was a workplace model born in the closing chapter of the industrial era, designed by its architects to squeeze the most from their contemporaries. Of course, this was a group of predominantly urban workers. It came at a time when factory labourers toiled a hundred hours across six-day weeks, and the combined forces of unions, workers and even businesses called for decisive and frankly well-earned change.

But nearly a century later, we find ourselves asking similar questions: can Britain entertain a four-day week? Will it boost productivity? Will it gut profits? Is it even possible?

This article aims to look at the four-day week, its pros and cons, before passing judgement on this at-first-glance radical proposition, and whether HR should state its case.

Why the four-day working week?

The common case for a 4-day working week is this: if employees work less and have a 3-day weekend, they will be more satisfied and accordingly more productive. Having time to not only recover from the working week, but also being able to invest time into themselves will make them more eager to work.

It’s a highly attractive idea to workers. But there’s also precedent that businesses have been looking to experiment with reforming labour to improve productivity.

For instance, Microsoft Japan’s offices toyed with a 4-day week, and saw a 40% increase in productivity. The movement has also seen some success across Europe. For instance, we’ve witnessed successful models ranging from extended summer breaks in France, the Netherlands, and Spain, as well as 35-hour weeks in Germany. But across British business, there seems to be widespread scepticism – especially in the city of London – about whether it’s viable in the UK.

What are the pros of a four-day working week?  

In the last year, much has been discussed on the question of work-life balance and how the workforce feels this balance has tipped towards work. The CIPD’s 2019 UK Working Lives Survey found:

  • 26% of workers felt their job affects personal commitments
  • Just 7% agreed their personal commitments affect their job
  • Three in five workers work longer hours than they’d like to

So clearly, there’s a sentiment across the UK workforce that work is spilling into their lives outside of the office. How then, could a four-day week solve the work-life balance problem?

It allows for personal growth

In a five-day week, employees often find themselves sacrificing development as a result of being burned out by long hours. A three-day weekend, however, offers people the ability to balance their work and their life with an extra day to focus on themselves. The extra day frees up time to allow employees that want to build soft and hard skills outside the confines of their job description. It could also help with upskilling, as workers are able to pursue self-directed learning during the time off if they so desire.

It can improve wellbeing

The dangerous consequences of working long hours are well known. Stress, burnout, and poor mental health are all such consequences of this. Beyond this, according to the HSE, the UK loses 12.8 million working days due to work-related stress. The weekend becomes a time to recover, rather than something to make the most of. Giving workers an extra day off allows them to take the burden of work off their chest properly.

It increases engagement and productivity

While the question of overall output might be called to question, a shorter working week would empower employees to be more productive hourly. Furthermore, considering how many hours a week are wasted on office chatter, phone use, or simply slow performance induced by exhaustion or burnout, slashing eight hours of the working week could minimise these issues significantly as a result.

It can reduce underemployment

In the UK, there are 3.3 million underemployed people. There’s a massive pool of talent that employers are missing out on because of said talent’s required flexibility. The four-day week has the potential to powerfully alter the state of underemployment in the country for good. For years, people unable to devote to 5 day weeks, whether they be parents, carers, disabled, or if they have other special circumstances, have often had to submit to underpaid or part-time work because full-time employment can’t offer the flexibility they need in order to meet their commitments. A four-day week could provide the flexibility for more people to join the full-time workforce, and earn a regular salary, rather than submitting to contract, freelance, or other less secure means of living.

It could shrink the gender pay gap

The five-day week was built around the idea of a male breadwinner working in a factory in the mid-twentieth century. The economy has transformed dramatically since that time, so too have gender dynamics, and they indeed continue to change. The 9-5 has long operated as a barrier to greater gender equality in the workplace. For instance, caregivers, who are more often women, or mothers, have to choose part-time work for flexibility, losing out on well-paid, full-time employment that would otherwise promise career growth.

It reduces costs

A four-day week could cut costs for both employers and employees. For employers, the cost of running offices would be cut by a day. For employees, it would mean one day less of commuting a week (which would certainly contribute to wellbeing), seeing a cut in their travel expenses.

Other benefits could include:

  • Happier employees
  • Fewer health issues
  • Boosts to recruitment and retention

Of course, while a four-day week appears an attractive solution to a number of workplace woes, it doesn’t change the fact that employers across sectors in the country are largely and rightly sceptical of the net positivity of such a drastic change.

What are the concerns about the four-day week?

It would require significant resources to adapt to this new working reality; and not all businesses can adapt to a four-day week. Security companies, call centres, and other companies that offer critical services will have problems serving their customers in a 4-day workweek which could cause frustration. Additionally, managing work for clients that work a five-day week could be a source of problems.

The working week could fall across different days internationally, which could cause problems for international businesses. In fact, 82% of organisations say reduced availability for customers is the largest barrier to the 4-day week, raising several questions like:

  • How will rotas be managed to allow responsiveness?
  • Will employees still need to meet on non-working day to meet demands?
  • Will work spill into personal time?

Therefore, it’s an option that’s only viable for companies who can re-adapt their entire organisations to a new way of working or companies with an HR system that can factor in these concerns.

A four-day week could actually increase stress

One day less a week could drive employers to push overtime limits. The 9-5 could be transformed into a 12 to 14-hour day, as businesses seek to squeeze the same amount of work and projects into fewer days. Taking away the five-day week could cause additional pressures for employees as a result. For those trying to meet strict deadlines, they may find themselves unable to do so in a week, and that their work continues to spill into their personal time regardless of being in the office one day less a week. This could all contribute negatively to burnout, stress, and poor mental health.

It could lead to greater inflexibility

Such a change in work environment could create serious problems for employees who require the flexibility part time, freelance and contract work offer. A 4-day week might in fact encourage employers to reduce other types of flexibility. This could end up being hugely problematic for people with caring responsibilities or medical issues.

You can’t predict how it’ll impact your business

It would be difficult for HR professionals to perform a cost-benefit analysis of a 4-day policy when they don’t know how their teams would function under one. Some employers willing to experiment w/ the idea can test it out with minimal risk if they think strategically, such as figuring out how to slash working hours, finding out what less value-added tasks can be streamlined, and easing into reduced working hours. But this is a lot to ask, especially if a business has no precedent to follow on.

So, should HR professionals push for it?

Despite working the longest hours in Europe, Britain is among the least productive. While wholesale change is far from near, the fact that we’re having the conversation again demonstrates the increasing importance of work-life balance, and that people at large are seriously considering reforming the way labour is done. Businesses and employees need to work together to manage this and ensure people have the autonomy and flexibility in a way that suits them, and that workloads are manageable – whether we move to a 4-day working week or not.

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