The four-day week: a boon for employers and staff alike - or neither?

The buzz is building over reduced working hours, though not everyone is convinced

Thousands of employees at 70 British firms are taking part in the six-month trial. PA
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Higher productivity levels, reduced fatigue and greater overall well-being are some of the benefits reported by workers taking part in the UK’s largest trial of a four-day work week.

As the six-month pilot approaches the halfway mark, participants are singing the praises of having an extra day off each week while retaining their full pay, but bosses have admitted there have been challenges.

Around 70 firms and 3,300 staff signed up for the trial run by 4 Day Week Global in partnership with think tank Autonomy, the 4 Day Week UK Campaign, agreeing to be studied by researchers at the University of Cambridge, the University of Oxford and Boston College.

The deal is simple: employees are promised full pay in return for 80 per cent of their normal working hours and 100 per cent of their productivity.

‘It’s not for everyone’

Several businesses who signed up, some sceptically, for the trial, told The National that the all-round benefits have convinced them a shorter working week could possible be extended into the future, even after the study ends.

“When you give a group of people a money-can’t-buy incentive like time then everybody really pulls together and really tries incredibly hard to find ways to be more productive,” Simon Ursell, managing director of Tyler Grange, said.

The environmental business employs more than 100 staff who specialise in carrying out surveys on trees and wildlife including bats and badgers. The type of work plays a crucial role in the development of houses across the UK and demand for services is high.

Bosses have seen productivity levels of staff increase by 19 per cent this summer compared to the same period last year.

Staff have also used anonymous surveys to report a drop in tiredness and increased happiness.

But like any major change to a work environment, there has been opposition from some staff who say the atmosphere is “more stressful and more pressurised” due to them having to meet deadlines in a shorter time frame. Others have found it too much to bear and walked out.

“It’s not for everybody, interestingly,” Mr Ursell said. “We’ve had a couple of people leave because they don’t want to do it. They say they want to work five days. They feel like it’s a calmer, steadier way of working.

“But almost everybody is absolutely loving it.”

The key to rolling out the change in a smooth manner lies in the planning, Mr Ursell said, adding that his company spent months preparing for the seismic shift.

“What we didn’t want to do was go cold turkey and just do a four day week and see how we go,” he said. “We really worked on our systems to reduce the admin.

“There’s a saying that any task will fill the time allocated to it. We need to ask 'can this task be done in a shorter amount of time?'

“This is not something we’ve imposed but as a community we’ve decided we wanted to do. There were plenty of people saying they weren’t sure [about the trial].

“It feels like a really big decision but now I’ve done it I wish I’d done it earlier.”

‘The buzz is building’

Paul David, co-founder and chief executive of Literal Humans, a digital marketing firm which employs eight full-time staff who work remotely, is another boss keen to emphasise the benefits of shorter working hours.

In the few months his company has been taking part, several people have approached him asking for a job specifically because of the four day element. Some prospective employees have even turned up to interviews saying they would be prepared to accept less money in exchange for more free time.

“We’ve had people literally come to us saying I will take less money for an extra day,” he said. “We say: 'We will give you full pay for four days'.”

One of the major lessons from the trial has been that what seems urgent may not always be, he said, as clients have to now wait until Monday if they have a request on Friday.

“There’s also a broader thing that it’s teaching us that everything doesn’t need to be done as quickly as people think it does,” he said. “I think it’s a cultural shift that they have to get used to. It will just wait until Monday.”

Mr David said the firm is managing to churn out the exact amount of work as before, and staff are meeting deadlines. This convinces him the trial could lay the foundation for a new way of working at the company.

“I think it will be pretty difficult to roll it back particularly because we’ve hired people and it explicitly states it in their contract,” he said.

“People have figured out how to put that 20 per cent into the 80 per cent of the week.

“The buzz is building. I think people are really starting to see that if I can deliver quality work to my clients in four days rather than five days then I’d rather work with the agency that has a work-life balance.”

‘If it doesn’t add value, let it go’

Dominic Hobdell, operations and finance manager at AKA Case Management, which provides care to people with traumatic injuries and debilitating conditions, said a streamlining of internal processes was vital for the company before it started the trial.

In the run up to the trial, bosses reached out to the 14 office employees taking part and were determined to adopt a “ground up approach”, taking into account staff needs. Carers, whose work hours are dictated by their clients' needs, are not participating.

Managers decided to cut corners where they could to maximise the amount of time staff had to get their work done, and the benefits have paid off.

“The big lesson for us has been what can you let go of that doesn’t add value and also how can you work more efficiently,” Mr Hobdell said. “It’s saying, well we used to do this but is it benefitting us, benefitting our clients, benefitting the company and if it’s not can we reduce how often we do it or stop it altogether.

“For example we used to have a meeting once a month of one-and-half hours to two hours. We looked at that and said what are we actually gaining from the meeting?”

The decision was taken to scrap the monthly summit and instead place the relevant information on a centralised system that staff have access to and can look at in their own time. The result was more time for personnel to get on with what really matters.

Productivity levels among staff are increasing over the shorter working week and staff have told him an extra day off every week is worth the effort.

“You sometimes get to a Sunday afternoon, Sunday evening and you get that ‘going back to work tomorrow’ kind of feeling,” he said. “It isn’t there now because I’ve got the Monday off so it’s like having a bank holiday weekend every weekend. It is brilliant.”

The decision on whether to continue with a four-day work week will depend on feedback from clients, he said.

“It’s all very well us saying we’re doing great but for us to get that feedback externally will be really important as well to make sure that we’re still doing what they need us to do,” he added.

‘It’s a collective effort’

Louise Verity, founder of Bookishly, a firm making framed prints, personalised tote bags and book covers, said staff have learned they all have to chip in to make the four-day week possible.

If one employee makes a mistake, like printing the wrong logo on a batch of 100 bags, coming in on their day off while their peers are relaxing at home is simply not an option. Instead, everyone downs tools and gets stuck into the task at hand to ensure a fifth working day can be avoided.

“It will get prioritised,” the entrepreneur said. “You may have six people with that person helping to fix the issue. Having someone come in to fix that on their day off seems like a punishment and I don’t want that.

“It’s a collective effort.”

The change to the working week has meant Bookishly has had to alter its staff holidays system to ensure there is always someone available to meet a client’s need. “We used to be very flexible with holidays, giving them to staff at the last minute,” she explained. “But now with the four-day week, if two people from the same department are off it can be problematic. Now, staff have to book holidays in advance.”

Ms Verity, whose now-thriving business grew out of an Etsy project she started during days off at a previous job, says it is encouraging to see her staff use their free time to explore creative projects.

“I don’t think that working should just be their life," she said. "I am all for them having side hustles, volunteering. One of the staff is a musician and he’s been writing more songs.”

While Bookishly has managed to maintain the same level of output in four days as it did in five days, Ms Verity said staff will have to wait until next year to find out if the change will be a permanent one. The peak gift seasons of Christmas and Easter will first have to be passed through in order for her to consider whether a shorter working week is realistic throughout the year.

But given the promising signs so far, she is hopeful any further challenges can be overcome and has decided to expand the business and hire more staff.

“I don’t think the answer to an issue is we cannot do a four day week, but how can we do a four day week,” she said.

Updated: September 02, 2022, 6:00 PM