Four-day work week: The revolutionary new way of working explained

Four-day work week: The revolutionary new way of working explained
Work less, produce more? UK companies embrace four-day week

The way we work has changed throughout history.

In 1890, the United States government estimated that a full-time employee within a manufacturing plant worked an average of 100 hours a week. By the mid-20th century, manufacturing employees only worked 40 hours a week.

Now, campaign groups, unions and employees are calling to cut hours even more and proposing a four-day working week across multiple sectors.

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But how does it work, and is it a good idea?

Here is everything we know about the scheme:

What is a four-day week?

A four-day working sees workers have their work hours cut by 20 per cent, with no cut to pay and no cut to productivity either. It is different from compressed hours, in which people work the same number hours across fewer days.

What workplaces are adopting it?

In short - lots.

Last June, 61 companies entered a six-month trial of the scheme. Of those, 56 have extended the four-day week, including 18 who have made it permanent.

Meanwhile, Spain is spending 10 million euros to subsidise small manufacturers so they can cut working hours by at least 10 per cent while maintaining pay in an upcoming two-year trial.

Unilever piloted a four-day week for its 80 New Zealand staff over 18 months and has since extended it to 500 workers in Australia.

More than 500 employees at 28 companies are participating in South Africa’s four-day workweek trial, which began in March and will continue until September. A second trial is planned to start in June.

And in early 2022, the Belgian government announced a reform package that gives workers the right to work four days instead of five without losing their salary. The law officially went into effect in November 2022.

As for the UK, South Cambridgeshire district council has agreed to test a 32-hour working week for 150 refuse loaders and drivers this summer after successful experiments with reduced working hours with office- and laptop-based staff.

And Sheffield-based Rivelin Robotics, one of the firms that participated in the scheme, said they plan to continue with a new approach. The chief product officer, David Mason, said he hoped offering a shorter working week would help with future recruitment. “It’s certainly something that makes us a little bit different from the average.”

What are the pros of a four-day week?

A four-day week can create a happier, more productive workforce.

Research conducted by Sanford University revealed a clear correlation between workload and productivity. Overworked employees are less productive than employees working an average or normal working week.

“When people enjoy having an extra day off, that creates better work-life balance which, in turn, makes people happier and less stressed,” Claire Daniels, CEO of Leeds-based digital marketing agency Trio Media told the BBC. “And happier people perform better at work.”

Then there are ethical considerations about how to treat employees and equality in the workplace. Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, an economics professor at the University of Oxford, said there was a moral case for introducing it.

It's been almost 100 years since we moved to the five-day week ... so it's high time that we start thinking more cogently about next steps," he told Reuters, referring to US carmaker Henry Ford and his introduction of a five-day week in 1926.

Meanwhile, research on the Gender Pay Gap from the Government Equalities Office shows that roughly two million British people are not currently in employment due to childcare responsibilities and 89 per cent of these people are women. A four-day workweek could allow employees to spend more time with their families and better juggle care and work commitments.

What are the cons of a four-day week?

So what's the catch? Well, not all businesses are equipped to deal with it.

Dr Mansoor Soomro, senior lecturer in sustainability and international business at Teesside University International Business School told Raconteur it might be difficult to implement these schemes in smaller businesses.

“Smaller businesses have more limited resources, particularly in terms of human capital,” he said. “They would therefore find it more difficult to rearrange shift patterns, say.”

Meanwhile, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, programme manager at 4 Day Week Global and author of the book Shorter told the publication that four-day weeks work better in certain industries than others.

“The first adopters of the four-day week tended to be places where everyone performs a similar role,” he said. “Implementing a four-day week in those companies is very different to implementing it in a hospital, for example, where you’ve got multiple professions and working schedules. This requires a lot of coordination to work out and we’re still learning how to make it happen.”

Then there is the stress of cramming all your work into a shorter week. “Without having a fifth day to catch up on work, there’s generally more stress now during the week in order to have a longer weekend,” Laura White, projects and research manager at London-based charity Waterwise told the BBC.

And when the economy is in a sticky situation, firms are less likely to make big structural changes about the way they operate.

What do people think about it?

Despite potential problems, it seems both the public and businesses are on board. Polling shows that 58 per cent of the British public expected a four-day week to be the normal way of working by 2030, with only 22 per cent believing it would not.

Meanwhile, some thirds (64 per cent) of businesses in the UK would back the introduction of a four-day working week, according to a survey seen exclusively by Raconteur.

The YouGov poll of 1,028 corporate decision-makers revealed that 34 per cent strongly support the idea, while 30 per cent are somewhat supportive of it. Only 15 per cent strongly oppose it.

A four-day week could become the new normal then. But as for when? We will all just have to wait and see.

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