Is a 4-day week closer than we think?

By Victoria Fellows


In June this year, more than 30 employers will trial a 4-day working week. Whilst this isn’t a new concept, it's one that finally seems to be gaining traction in UK workplaces. 

The 5-day working week was created over a century ago. In a time that preceded technology, mobile and remote working, the cloud and automation. Since then, the world has changed. So, is it time that our working practices caught up?  

Who are the brave pioneers taking part? How will reduced hours impact average daily workloads? And how can you capitalise on running a four-day working week to ensure the reduced hours are a benefit and not a curse?

The 4-Day Week, UK trial

Atom Bank, Canon, Target Publishing, The Circle and 26 other companies will be moving employees to a 4-day working week, with no change in pay. They will monitor employee productivity and contribute to a report at the end of the trial. This will be compiled by 4-Day Week, think tank Autonomy and researchers at Cambridge University, Oxford University and Boston College as they seek to find out whether employees can operate at 100% productivity for 80% of the time. 

The potential benefits

Employees will benefit from a better work-life balance, enabling them to take care of other important elements in life such as rest, enjoyment and taking care of life admin – the shopping, cleaning, banking and managing the household.

Meanwhile, employers could benefit from improved performance and increased profits. One trial conducted in 2019 by Henley Business School found that 250 firms participating in a 4-day week trial saved around £92 billion a year from fewer sick days because their employees were happier and less stressed. Longer-term, it could be assumed that a shorter working week could also lead to lower staff turnover and, according to HR Review, as it costs £30k to train a new member of staff could mean the gains would be substantially higher.

There are economic gains for the nation too. Unemployment is likely to decrease with fewer employees feeling the pressure of being overworked, or underworked. 

A reduced working week could also boost gender equality.

  • Presently the number of women decreases at every step of the career ladder with the number of women in entry-level roles just falling short of parity with men in entry-level roles.
  • By the time women reach C-Suite level roles, they are outnumbered by men by almost 4 x. Partly, this can be attributed to the need for women to step back from their careers following having children, and many organisations not being as supportive as they could when it comes to helping women return to the workplace. With a 4-day working week, women will have more opportunity to balance family life and the industries will likely be able to retain talent for longer. 
  • In the US, around 28% of women with children under 18 left the workforce to become permanent caregiver, compared to just 10% of men. This isn’t only the case in the States. According to another McKinsey report, senior-level women were 1.5 times more likely than men to think about downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce because of Covid-19 and the resulting family pressures. With greater time available for both parents to commit to young families, women are likely to feel less pressure to step back from their careers to meet the demands of their family. 

Where did the concept of a 4-day working week come from? 

  • In the summer of 2019, Microsoft embarked on a 4-day working week trial. Since then, it has seen a 23% reduction in electricity costs and a 40% increase in sales per employee year-on-year. It was these undeniable results that prompted the Japanese government to recommend companies embrace a 4-day working week in their 2021 Annual Economic Policy Guidelines. 
  • Around 85% of employees in Iceland already have the option to work a 4-day week following trials held between 2015 and 2019 which were heralded an ‘overwhelming success’. 
  • New Zealand is also considering adopting a 4-day working week with Jacinda Ardern keen to promote a healthier work-life balance. Unilever in New Zealand is part-way through a one-year trial which involves measuring performance on output and not time as employees shift to a 4-day working week. 
  • A study by Perpetual Guardian in 2018 found that when it shifted to a shorter working week, the organisation reported gains in leadership, stimulation, empowerment and commitment compared with a 2017 survey of the same workforce. Staff stress levels reduced and work-life balance scores increased. 
  • One Miami-based Fintech company, Bolt, found that applications for jobs increased by 30% when they set out their blueprint to switch to a 4-day working week. 

What are the challenges around a 4-day working week?

Campaign Director at 4-Day Week, UK, Ryle, was reported by Insider Magazine as saying "Compressing hours from five days into four doesn't solve the problems of workplace burnout, stress, overwork, or mental health issues". He also was keen to point out that a reduction in hours shouldn't come with a reduction in pay. And these concepts will be fundamental to achieving a successful transition to a 4-day working week. Failure to embrace this would have the adverse effect of an increasingly overstressed and overworked workforce. 

The other issue is the need to remove the stigma around working a 4-day week, with employees and employers alike accepting a shorter working week as a smarter way to work. If this is to happen, it will be necessary to educate the public about the benefits and the purpose of the reduced hours. Without this level of broader education, employees may still feel under pressure to be contactable on that fifth working day, which will only serve to further blur the lines between those that work five days a week and those who work for four. 

Of course, it’s also important to avoid the reduction of salaries as people start to take up 4-day working week jobs, so employees don’t find themselves impacted by a salary reduction by stealth. 

Every company is different, so in the adoption of a shorter working week, not all companies will find the same solution works for them. In child-care settings in Gothenburg, shorter days are being trialled to mirror a 4-day working week with additional staff being taken on to cover the shortfall. In another Icelandic childcare setting, staff left when the children left, rather than staying later to prepare for the following day. Not all companies will find that switching to 9-5.30 Monday-Thursday will deliver the right results. It’s about what works for them.

So why now? 

The Covid-19 pandemic has opened our eyes to how flexible working can benefit organisations and employees alike. Having had to embrace digital communications, remote working and flexible working to accommodate life and the complexity brought about by Covid-19, organisations seem to be increasingly amenable to finding new and more efficient working practices as we emerge from the pandemic. 

  • With instant communications, mobile working, digitalisation, AI and automation, the technology is now available to enable organisations to maintain productivity. Insider magazine reports that campaigners for the cause feel that switching to a 4-day working week should be achievable simply through reducing time spent in meetings and embracing technology. 
  • Promising to reduce levels of burnout, social inequality, costs (in a world where energy prices are set to soar), and slow the increasing climate crisis, there appear to be plenty of reasons to make a 4-day working week work. 

Of course, if employers can welcome the 4-day working week, embracing the increased efficiencies that come with it, they will be well-placed to attract and retain talented candidates who can really help them make a difference within their industry.

If you’d like further information about the best way to attract high-quality technology candidates in a difficult market, one of our experienced consultants can guide you through the best way to get the most from your recruitment budget, so give us a call on +44(0)118 988 1150 or drop me an email on  Alternatively, you can view or search all of our current roles here.


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