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Thousands of UK workers try a four-day week

More than 3,000+ workers at c70 UK companies are working a four-day week with no loss of pay in the world’s biggest trial of the new working pattern.

The pilot is running for six months and is being organised by 4 Day Week Global in partnership with the thinktank Autonomy, the 4 Day Week Campaign, and researchers at Cambridge University, Oxford University, and Boston College.

The trial is based on the 100:80:100 model – 100% pay for 80% of the time in exchange for a commitment to maintaining 100% productivity.

The drive to improve working conditions by adopting a shorter working week has continued to gain momentum post-pandemic. Proponents claim that cutting hours without cutting pay can lead to higher productivity.

Employees from a wide range of businesses and charities–including the Royal Society of Biology, London brewing company Pressure Drop, a Norfolk chip shop, and a Manchester medical devices firm–are taking part in the scheme, which runs initially from June to December 2022.

Mark Downs, CEO of the Royal Society of Biology, said: “It’s about trying to do more to be a good, innovative employer to attract and retain our current staff. “These sorts of possibilities make a massive difference. It’s great for everybody.”

He added that responses from the society’s 35 employees have been universally positive. The society stays open Monday to Friday, with workers split into two shifts. Outside the current trial, other companies experimenting with a four-day week include Unilever, Panasonic, and Atom Bank.

What are the positives and negatives of a four-day week?

The negatives

1. Cost

Switching to a four-day week may be more costly, as a company in France found out. Employees trialling the four-day week ended up working the same hours as they did before the experiment but at a higher rate due to the overtime that had to be paid by the business resulting in a higher wage bill. For a company in Sweden, it has been noted that although jobs had been created and there was a reduction in sick pay, they needed to hire extra staff, resulting in additional costs.

2. Lost productivity

Some people are more productive on a four-day week, others not so much. Online coding school Treehouse started with a 32-hour week and ended up increasing it to 40 hours after it led to a “reduced work ethic”, said CEO Ryan Carson. Managers at New Zealand finance company Perpetual Guardian found that workers who saw the four-day week as a privilege were more productive, but those who saw it as a right were not.

3. Culture clash

Some staff at Perpetual Guardian found they were not comfortable with extra unstructured or alone time. US company Wildbit addressed the same problem by facilitating conversations about volunteering and hobbies.

High demand and seasonal work can also be a problem, leaving some staff at Perpetual Guardian with gruelling 10-hour days in their four-day weeks. Toyota solves this by letting employees choose whether to work fewer hours, hiring more staff and introducing overlapping shifts.

4. Less face time

For most organisations, maintaining productivity while cutting working hours inevitably means cutting meetings, leading to less face-to-face contact and more feelings of isolation for some employees.

5. More out-of-hours communication

After Iceland moved all public employees to shorter hours, some said the need to contact colleagues’ out of hours’ had increased, which must be particularly depressing when you barely see daylight outside working hours.

The positives

1. Increased productivity

Although some trials have led to lost productivity, there is plenty of evidence that people can be equally productive or even more in fewer hours. Some of the most productive countries, like Germany, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands, work an average 27-hour week–about the same as the UK’s proposed four-day week–while Japan, a country that has a word for “death by overwork” and a taboo on leaving the office before the boss, ranks 20th of 35 countries for productivity.

Research, found that while not everyone was more productive on a four-day week, average productivity remained the same. It was also noted that stress dropped from 45 per cent to 38 per cent, and job satisfaction, work/life balance, teamwork, and company loyalty increased.

2. More equality

Research by the Government Equalities Office found that nearly two million British people are out of work because of childcare responsibilities, and 89 per cent are women. A four-day week would open up more career opportunities for people with care responsibilities.

3. Lower carbon emissions

A four-day week would cut 20 per cent of emissions from commuting and power use in office buildings. A US trial saved over $1.8m (£1.36m) and at least 6,000 metric tons of CO2 in ten months by closing a large office building on Fridays. When commutes were factored in, the estimated saving was 12,000 metric tons of CO2 a year, the equivalent of taking 2,300 cars off the road.

4. Better employee engagement

The Swedish care home trial (which gave nurses a six-hour day rather than a four-day week) resulted in less sick leave, better health and mental wellbeing, and a massive improvement in employee engagement. The nurses arranged 85 per cent more activities for the residents in their care. While the trial was financially costly, it’s impossible to put a price on happiness.

Joe O’Connor, CEO of 4 Day Week Global, said it was impossible to “turn the clock back” to the old normal. “Increasingly, managers and executives are embracing a new model of work which focuses on quality of outputs, not the number of hours. Workers have emerged from the pandemic with different expectations around what constitutes a healthy life-work balance.”

5. An additional tool to help secure talent

With competition continuously growing to source highly sought-after talent, especially in the engineering and technology sector, offering a four-day working week may be the difference between getting that prized candidate or losing them to another company.

Since companies were forced to look at their way of working during COVID and following the Great Resignation, the likes of hybrid and flexible working has become part of everyday working life for many companies in the UK, who previously said couldn’t function to that way of working. Could a four-day working week be the new ‘norm’ in the UK?

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