The future of the four-day working week
The four-day working week is currently dominating the headlines after a successful pilot was launched last year. With many companies now choosing to continue the working pattern, MPs are due to review the findings and debate the future of the 32-hour working week in Britain.
But what is the realistic future of this new way of working? In this blog, I’ll examine the benefits – and the often-ignored drawbacks – of the four-day working week, and how it may or may not work for your organisation.
- The disadvantages of the four-day work week
- The results of the UK’s four-day pilot
- If this new way of working could become the norm
The four-day work week trial: what is it and what happened?
In 2022, 70 UK companies began a four-day working week pilot from June until December – with hugely successful results. 3300 workers took part in the pilot, making it the biggest four-day week pilot to take place anywhere in the world, and leaving us with plenty of findings to go through.
Firstly, the statistics from the pilot highlight some of the benefits of the new working method; 49% of organisations reported a smooth transition, with 95% of organisations stating they maintained or improved on their productivity level. Overall, 86% of participating companies believe it is either likely or extremely likely that they will implement the four-day week outside of the pilot.
The pilot was also reported to boost efficiency, with employees completing their usual 35-40 hours workload in just 32 hours.
Nearly all (95%) of organisations stated that their productivity level stayed the same or increased, with the pilot promoting higher productivity levels amongst employees. The additional day off also caused workers to be happier and more fulfilled both inside and outside of work as, internally, they had finished their workload earlier than usual and, because of this, they had more time to spend doing the things they love such as exercising and socialising, alongside more time to sleep.
The pilot is also viewed as being better for the planet due to the reduction in commuting and using office resources for one less day per week. Studies show that a 10% reduction in working hours cuts an individual’s carbon footprint by 8.6%, and many participants of the pilot took part in walking and cycling during their additional day off. The pilot also saw more time spent on household recycling, as participants were at home and able to focus efforts on this rather than rushing to work.
Where was the four-day working week less successful?
The seamless change from five working days to four is of course a positive, with 29% reporting an ‘extremely smooth’ transition – but what about the other 22% who didn’t find the process so easy? In reports detailing the positives of the pilot, the negatives are often ignored, but 16 organisations who took part in the pilot did not find the switch from five days to four simple. This highlights that the process isn’t as straightforward as we are led to believe by some of the results.
Looking at the reported outcomes from the pilot, it feels easy to assume that moving to a four-day working week is a no-brainer. But is it that simple?
Thinking about the future - the unspoken disadvantages of the four-day working week
I’m going to say it: the four-day working week has its flaws. Organisations need to be conscious of, and prepared for, these challenges if they want to embrace this model.
Firstly, although workers might be excited for an extra day off and to work less hours, organisations should be realistic about what they expect to happen in a future four-day week. Productivity will decrease eventually as employees get used to adjusting their workload for a 32-hour week, as it has done for the five-day week. New tools or software may have to be introduced to help tasks be completed more efficiently, so this new way of working could incur extra costs.
It’s important to remember that this is a pilot that many workers would have wanted to see succeed – but is it likely, fair, or realistic, that these results would be replicated over not just weeks, but years, of work?
A reduction in productivity may also stem from burnout as workers try to fit an extra day of work into their new schedule. One positive that emerged from the pandemic was the ability to work flexibly, which resulted in less burnout in workers and a greater ability to separate your work and home life. By trying to fit an extra eight hours of work into four days, employees will experience more stress and demand at work, with burnout becoming more likely.
Secondly, it's important to factor in that one arrangement will not fit all workplaces – for example a UK-wide Friday off will not suit everyone. The four-day week requires an element of flexibility, particularly for those with children. Parents who have a set five-day working routine will have to alter their schedule to fit the four-day working week, even if it isn’t convenient for them.
Thirdly, results from the UK pilot found that teams didn’t have as much capacity for major errors in a four-day week and businesses were required to pay overtime if employees worked longer to fix errors. This is a lose-lose situation for both the workers and the business. Employees working four days don’t have much margin for error so everything must be perfect, or they have to work overtime to correct it. Not only does this put a lot of pressure on teams, but businesses could also incur extra costs for mistakes – meaning that everyone in this scenario leaves unhappy.
Many organisations place their customer relationships as a focal point of the business, and everything they do is to make customers happy. However, in the four-day working week pilot, customers complained that they were unable to access any advice or help due to the business being closed on that specific day as workers utilised the four-day week. Naturally, if more companies gravitate towards a four-day work week, some of this expectation could shift – but it may also leave the door open for competitors who can offer week-round support.
Will a four-day working week ever work?
Although this might not be a popular opinion right now, I find it hard to see how the four-day working week can be implemented sustainably in real life. Right now, I can see the incentive: same pay, less hours, extra day off. But will future generations be happy to work this intensely, at that level, for a full four days? The current workforce would be happy to work the four-day week, but those who have never worked a five-day week might desire a 3.5 day week, and so on.
Essentially, the plan works short-term, but worker and company expectations need to be managed on the matter. Every person in an organisation has to be focused and working at 100% all day every day, with burn-out high and productivity down. What I think people actually want is flexibility, as asking for an extra day off is really asking for flexibility during working days and working hours.
In conclusion, although the four-day week may be appealing right now, I can’t seem it working for organisations past the immediate future.
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