Three people leaders on the four-day working week
Over the last few years the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent trends like the Great Resignation have led organisations to reimagine workplace flexibility and benefits. Hybrid setups, flexible hours and work from home models have become an expectation in today’s competitive employee-led market. Indeed, CIPD research shows that 6% of employees changed jobs last year specifically due to a lack of flexible options and 12% left their profession altogether due to a lack of flexibility within the sector.
As work-life balance has become increasingly important we have also seen the rising popularity of the four-day working week. The concept is simple: Employees condense their work into four days without any changes to their pay or benefits. The 100:80:100 principle, founded by 4 Day Week Global, encourages companies to pay 100% of employees’ salary for 80% of their time, while still achieving 100% of the productivity and business outputs.
A global outlook
The four-day working week was first trialled in Iceland in 2015, with the country embarking on an experiment involving more than 2,500 public sector workers, to improve work–life balance and productivity. The results highlighted the potential for a shorter work week. Employees maintained or increased their productivity while experiencing reduced stress and burnout.
Since then it has picked up steam across the globe. In 2021 the Japanese government’s annual economic policy guidelines included a recommendation that companies let employees opt for a four-day working week to improve work-life balance. Several corporations such as Microsoft and Panasonic piloted the scheme, while others, such as banking giant Mizuho, implemented it permanently.
Post-pandemic Belgium became the first country in Europe to legislate a four-day working week. The new law, which came into effect in November 2022, allows employees to decide whether to work four or five days a week. However, the voluntary scheme operates as a condensed model in which employees are required to work the same number of hours but work longer 9.5-hour days, with an extra day off to compensate.
Cultivating a positive work-life balance
Studies in various countries have shown that the four-day working week can both improve the health of employees and increase productivity. In the UK nearly 3000 employees took part in a six-month four-day working week trial in June 2022.
Among the companies that participated 92% of employers chose to continue with a shorter work week following the programme – with 30% making the change permanent. 71% of participating employees reported feeling reduced levels of burnout, while there were also improvements in physical health and wellbeing.
Giving employees a whole day back each week can make a big difference – not only to the employee but the business as a whole. Hugh Scantlebury, CEO and founder of accountancy software firm Aqilla is a strong believer that working requirements differ from person to person, putting flexibility at the heart of his business operations.
He believes that the real value of the four-day working week comes when this extra day off is put to good use: “Employees may choose to spend their extra day learning new skills or honing existing ones, for example, which can make them a better all-round individual with unique outlooks and experiences that they can bring back to the workplace. Alternatively, they may spend time doing charitable or volunteer work that gives back to the community.”
Whether employees choose to use their extra day to spend their time on charity work, skills building or catching up on domestic chores, it all contributes to a healthy work-life balance. Scantlebury adds: “In the long run, this gives back to the business: well-rested employees are more motivated and productive, have higher job satisfaction and are less likely to suffer from burnout. For industries where it is a possibility there are clearly potential benefits for all parties.”
The impact on working parents
These positive qualities of the four-day working week are increasingly being used as a tool to attract and retain talent. Improved work-life balance and flexibility is particularly valuable for those with caring responsibilities, such as working parents.
Based in Sydney, Veronika Birnkammer is head of marketing APAC and global head of PR at Fluent Commerce, as well as a mum of three. She welcomes the idea of a four-day week on a personal level, explaining: “I often feel like my children's lives are passing me by as they grow up so fast. Having an extra day a week to spend with them – and to spend on myself - would be heavenly.”
However, she argues that it's important to distinguish between a four-day working week and a condensed working model, such as the one operating in Belgium, where employees work the same hours over fewer days. This condensed model, “would make the day-to-day life of an active parent a nightmare,” she warns.
“If that were the alternative, I'd rather stick to working five days and still have the breathing room to do school pickups, take them to their appointments and so on without feeling like I must cram ten hours of work into each day. Flexibility remains the most important thing for parents.”
A compressed work week isn’t for everyone and comes with its own set of challenges such as scheduling issues and reduced flexibility, so it's important to distinguish between the two models and consider how they’ll impact all groups in the workplace.
Providing true flexibility
In the short term, the four-day working week offers a lot of promise. However, Florida-based Jen Locklear, chief people officer at ConnectWise, believes that after the initial excitement fades it’s a difficult schedule to maintain long-term.
Locklear participated in a condensed four-day work week pilot early in her career and found the ten-hour days really tough to sustain. Drawing on her experience she explains: “From an employer side there is complexity in scheduling and ensuring that your customer base continues to get the consistent attention and service to which they are accustomed. From an employee standpoint there is flexibility concern because routine tasks like doctor’s appointments might now have the expectation of being scheduled on an employee’s day “off”.”
With the rise of remote working alongside debates around the four-day working week it raises the questions as to whether it is flexibility that employees want. Locklear suggests: “Instead of offering a four-day work week as a pilot employers could consider identifying the slower months of the year, such as summer holidays, and offer a few months of four-day weeks instead of a perpetual programme that they may then have to backtrack.
“For companies that can absorb it shutting down an extra day a quarter could help with burnout, morale and engagement. This could be a more effective and productive alternative than increasing the number of hours an employee is working in a day.”
Weighing up the options
A four-day working week has grown in popularity over the past few years, with studies showing improved wellbeing and business productivity across a wide variety of sectors. However, as more companies look to offer employees the flexibility they desire, it's important to understand the associated challenges.
Before adopting the scheme businesses may need to consider productivity, costs and employee well-being – with a clear understanding of how a compressed work week differentiates from a reduced-hours week. More often than not requests for a four-day week stem from a need for more flexibility and break from the routine. Whether it’s reduced summer hours, flexitime or additional wellbeing days organisations should consider other ways they can provide a truly flexible work culture which works for them as well as their employees.