Is a 4-Day Work Week Too Good to Be True?

Wed 26 Jul 2023

Angela Tracey-Brown

Product Manager - CMI

In this thought-provoking blog, MOL's Product Manager for HR, Emily Allen, discusses a subject that's on everyone's lips in the world of HR: the 4-day work week!

4-Day Working Week – Is It Too Good to Be True?

Ever since I did my Economics A-level I’ve loved the quote by Keynes the economist:

“men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist” (Keynes, M. 1936).

In summary – If you are not questioning the systems and processes around you, you’re probably doing things that are long out of date. He felt that at the time, businessmen followed the economic status quo and didn’t question things enough, thereby not looking for better ways to do things, and not managing things effectively.
And in 2023, things are moving so much faster than they did in the 1930s. Now more than ever, we should be looking for better ways to do things. We really need to be having these conversations regularly and thinking about changes.

So one good question is - why do we work a 5-day working week? Is it because it’s scientifically proven to generate the best efficiencies and results? Is it because it makes people happy? Is it good for society, individuals, families?

The reason we have a 5-day working week as standard and all the policies, procedures, norms and values around this, is because on May 1 1926, Henry Ford trailblazed by introducing a 5-day, 40-hour working week – down from a standard 6-day week.

A century on, I personally feel a challenge to this is well overdue. Luckily, I’m not alone and for the past two years there have been several studies around the world where organisations have voluntarily trialled working 4-day weeks. The largest of these studies has been in the UK with 60 organisations.

This blogpost will be discussing the pros and cons of a 4-day work week, and how to start a 4-day work week for your business.

The benefits of a 4-day work week

I was lucky enough to recently attend the CIPD’s Festival of Work 2023, and saw a talk by the research team studying it at Cambridge and two organisations involved in the current trial. The session answered all my questions on how you can get started on this concept.

All the case studies in the current worldwide trials produce the same results: when you go down to 4-day weeks, your organisation improves. A list of some of the universally reported benefits are:

  • Organisational KPIs are met or exceeded (these were all set at the start of the trial)
  • Absenteeism reduces
  • Recruitment improves (quality and choice of candidates)
  • Increased productivity
  • Turnover reduces
  • Working practice efficiencies keep improving
  • Employee mental health improves
  • Employee quality of sleep improves
  • People enjoy their jobs
  • Organisational environmental impact improves
  • ESG improves - more people volunteer
  • Employees bring back new variety of skills and networks to their roles
  • Long-term positive impact on society
  • More inclusivity.

Normalising a 4-day work week

So if the business case stacks up, why doesn’t everyone do it?

The first barrier is changing minds. We have an ingrained culture of presenteeism in work. The assumption is that the more hours we work, the better we work. Of course, we all know this is nonsense, and the wasted hours can be considerable.

In a previous office job I was working next to someone who spent the whole working day managing her rented house online. She was in the office for 40 hours, I’m sure only 5 of those were dedicated to her actual job.

We in HR have long called for the need to measure outputs, not hours. Working from home during covid and beyond has given us managers and leaders more experience in how to do this.

Here are some of the big questions and the answers we got in the session:

1. Could a 4-day work week work for my business?

One thing the trial has shown is that all organisations think they are unique. Their concerns are around their customer needs, working shift work where hours are money and meeting KPIs.

But there are lots of options of how to do this and you can make changes incrementally. It just needs some thought and a dedicated workforce.

Have you ever felt like a “busy fool?” Working really hard but not really achieving the aims of the organisation? In a lot of jobs, there is “fat” in the working day. Communication can be poor, meetings can be wasted time, there aren’t systems in place for disseminating information. So to go down to 4 days a week forces efficiency and reduces stress over things that can be resolved by better organisational structure, full recruitment etc.

Some organisations in the trial decided to just not open one day a week (for example a Friday). It's bold, but once they worked out a way to meet client needs and expectations, it worked. For organisations with shift work (for example hospitals, teachers), it’s about looking at the overall goals of the organisation. The benefits need to be seen wholesale – not per employee.

For example, in hospitals understaffing and absenteeism can be extremely costly with the use of agency staff. If they can reduce absenteeism and increase recruitment, the service will run much better, they will save agency costs and the organisation will be more likely to meet or exceed its financial KPIs – let alone its non-financial. But arranging the rostering to start with is a challenge.

2. Why can’t employees work as efficiently for 5 days as they do for 4?

Well yes, I’m sure a lot of CEOs would want everyone to work 20% harder for free! But it doesn’t work like that. People wouldn’t have the drive and passion to figure out new ways of working; the 4-day working week is a real motivator that boosts employee engagement.

3. What do you do with current employees on part time contracts?

Changing to a 4-day week is part of the wholesale review of policies and procedures. Employees currently on 4 days a week will be doing 5 days a week in 4 like everyone else, and the working practices will change around them, so they will be paid full time.

Employees for example on 3 days a week – could be paid 0.75 rather than 0.6.

4. After the initial excitement, do people just slow down their working pace again?

The fear here is that employees try and find new working practices and are motivated while it’s still a trial and a treat, but once the excitement of reduced hours has worn off, people slope back to earlier, less productive practices. But the trial has found that employees keep finding new ways to be more productive and the organisation keeps getting better.

5. How do I start implementing a 4-day work week for my business?

What are your organisation's goals? What do you see as a successful organisation? What metrics are in place to show success?

The research would suggest whatever these are, they can be achieved by a 4-day working week.

A word of caution is that it is hard work. Organisations in the trial said they are glad they joined the trial because it gave them the support they needed to get started.
The trial gave employers support on things like how to:

  • Cut meeting times
  • Communicate
  • Deal with policies and procedures - holiday pay, rostering etc
  • Communicate with clients
  • Implement the right model – for example do you close the business on a Friday? Or operate 7 days a week?

You start with really thinking about your organisation's strategy, goals and KPIs. A 4-day week probably already meets some strategies and goals (creating an inclusive working environment, improving employee engagement etc). So the real blocker is working through the practicalities, and not believing the financial benefits enough to try.

The future of the 4-day work week

Clearly, as utopian as it sounds, it’s early days and it has the potential to not work too. The organisations in the trial clearly had good motivation and a forward-thinking senior leadership team who wanted this to work, so they were likely to achieve their outcomes.

70% of change projects fail, and like any change project, it may not work if implemented badly. Change is hard for some employees and this way of working is possibly not for everyone.

But something does need to give. The current structure of the working world is beginning to wobble, with Gen Z entering the workplace and wanting a lot more freedom and flexibility, such as remote working and a better work-life balance.

Organisations are struggling and finding the ways of working that worked for them five years ago are not working today. It’s time to try something new. Arguably, there isn’t anything to lose, and everything to gain.

The pace of change today is huge and it’s well-documented that people are exhausted. We’ve all gone from crisis to crisis. We are surrounded by a political system which is undermining our trust in leadership.

It’s no wonder people are looking for flexible working and thinking of themselves first as the most important thing to them. “Quiet quitting”, “bare minimum Mondays” and “bore-out” (rather than burn-out) are all social media terms which have sprung up over the past 2 years and paint a bleak picture.

So, if you have (or are) a leader who’s bought into this idea, and have the confidence that you can lead your people through this kind of change, there is plenty of support out there to start thinking about this. Why not start the conversation?

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