The 5-day working week is such a strong cultural norm that we often take it for granted that it’s always been that way. In fact, 5-day working weeks only took off in the late 19th and early 20th centuries due to changing attitudes towards productivity in factories. Industrialisation created a wave of optimism that we would work fewer hours as machines took the place of drudgery but it never quite turned out that way.
The 4-day working week hearkens back to this quest for productivity and work-life balance. Proponents claim that we can get more done in fewer hours by working more efficiently, since we all too often equate production with hours worked, rather than output. This claim has made the 4-day working week one of the most talked about topics in the future of work.
Boosters of the 4-day working claim a range of benefits, both for employers and their people:
However, the 4-day working week has its sceptics:
• People will be more tired because they will fill their days off with other paid work
• Efficiency means rushing people and cutting out socialising that is necessary for workplace culture and wellbeing
• There’s no getting around that work has to get done to maintain coverage for services like customer support
• The 4-day working week isn’t a priority for low income occupations where people need to work more hours to make ends meet, or low-margin industries that would be unprofitable if they reduced hours
So how do we know if the 4-day working week works?
4 days work for 5 days pay sounds simple enough but what does the 4-day working week look like?
Trials and pilot studies
In 2015 and 2017, trials of the 4-day working week were carried out by Reykjavík City Council and the Icelandic government. These involved 2500 people, or roughly 1% of the national working population, in a wide variety of roles, shift patterns, and workplaces. By reducing from 40 hours to between 35 and 36 hours, the trial found a widespread improvement to productivity and wellbeing without loss of service provision. A staggering 86% of Iceland’s working population have since moved to shorter working hours or have gained the right to do so. In 2019, Microsoft saw an increase in sales of nearly 40% during their 4-day week pilot in Japan.
In 2021, Atom Bank became the UK’s first bank and the largest business to carry out a 4-day working week trial. They were motivated by an acknowledgement of the changes brought by technology in enabling employee preferences for more flexible work and hoped to achieve a better work-life balance while boosting productivity. Over a 10-month period, Atom Bank reduced their working week from 37.5 hours to 34 hours with no loss of pay, expecting either Mondays or Fridays to be taken as days off. By the end of their trial, Atom Bank reported increases in KPIs related to employee engagement, customer satisfaction and productivity, while also seeing a 49% increase in applicants to advertised roles. Atom Bank hailed this as a success and will keep the changes going forward.
Over nine months on from introducing our new four-day working week, it’s clear that it has been a huge success for our business and our people. We are extremely proud of how our employees have adapted and the benefit it has brought to many.
Anne-Marie Lister, Chief People Officer at Atom bank
Pilots studies have proliferated in the wake of the pandemic. 4 Day Week Global conducted a 6-month pilot in 2022 involving 33 companies in the US and Ireland, with positive results for work-life balance, productivity and performance. European governments have closely followed these developments, with the governments of Portugal, Valencia, Wales and Scotland committing to pilots of their own. Organised by the 4 Day Week Campaign, 4 Day Week Global, and Autonomy, the biggest ever trial took place in the UK from June to December 2022. 61 companies of different sizes and sectors participated in the trial, with approximately 2900 people. Companies were given freedom to choose their working patterns, so long as they meaningfully reduced time while maintaining 100% pay. Their creative solutions fell into five broad categories:
Fifth day stoppage
• Company-wide shut down on one day per week
• Useful if the company doesn’t need to operate every weekday
• Employees take alternate days off
• Valued for ensuring service coverage
• 32 hour working week averaged over a whole year
• Appropriate for companies with busy seasons
• Days off if performance targets are met
• Important if viability depends on business performance
• Individual departments have different work patterns
• Useful where departments differ in function
Company experiences from the pilot
During the trial, the Financial Times interviewed several of the participating companies. Their experiences provide fascinating insights into the practicalities of adopting the 4-day working week.
Hutch, a games company based in London
⇒ Hutch chose a 5th day stoppage pattern, working 10 hours a days, 4 days a week.
Hutch added social events outside of working hours to make up for lost socialising, managers had less time to meet each other, and there was general anxiety about compressed schedules. However, staff preferred having a day off and it invigorated a process of examining productivity, streamlining meetings, and reducing bureaucracy. Hutch hopes the 4-day working week will make them competitive in attracting talent.
It’s shaken the business up where we are talking about productivity. How can we be more productive? How can we be less bureaucratic? How can we have better meetings? It’s a very energising kind of discussion. We’ve never done that before.
Shaun Rutland, CEO at Hutch
Stellar Asset Management, a small financial services company in central London
⇒ Stellar Asset Management chose a Staggered pattern to maintain service coverage.
They had to rely on the self-motivation of staff to attend to urgent business on days off when necessary. The pilot was a valuable opportunity to address attitudes towards working hours and productivity, a process that originally started when the pandemic forced the company to rethink their working hours and undesirable commutes.
We can’t allow customer service to drop or change. So we’re still open five days a week and normal working hours and we’re maintaining the same level of service that we did before… every individual member staff has chosen a day to have off, which works operationally within that team.
Daryl Hine, COO at Stellar Asset Management
Yo Telecoms, a small telecoms company in Southampton
⇒ Yo Telecoms chose a Conditional pattern. They operate continuous services, 24/7.
The trial helped the company to recognise the need to measuring KPIs across the company, whichraised important questions about how to quantify productivity in departments like HR. Yo Telecoms pulled out of trial because their conditional pattern prevented people from being able to make plans without knowing for sure if they would get their day off.
I know that there are some industries that could switch this on and it could be very successful immediately and there’ll be no concerns. I fear, from a service-based business, which is what we are, you need to think very carefully about how you’re doing it.
Nathan Hanslip, CEO at Yo Telecoms
Platten’s, a fish and chips restaurant in Norfolk on the coast
⇒ Platten’s chose an Annualised pattern to cope with fluctuations in seasonal demand and the need to open 7 days a week.
Platten’s good knowledge of their peak hours of trading helped them to balance shifts and maintain service coverage. The 4-day week helped them to retain staff, something vitally important in the hospitality sector.
I would hugely encourage more businesses within the hospitality industry to join the four-day-week scheme.
Luke Platten, Director at Platten’s Fish & Chips
How successful was the UK 4-day week pilot?
The trial was overwhelmingly successful, with 56 of the 61 participating organisations deciding to keep 4-day working week. On average, working hours had reduced from 38 to 34 hours, executives rated their overall experience at 8.3/10, and 96% of employees wanted to retain 4-day working weeks.
• Health and wellbeing benefits reported by employees:
⋅ 39% reduction in stress and 71% reduction in weekly burnout
⋅ Reduced levels of anxiety, fatigue and insomnia
⋅ Improved physical and mental health
⋅ Days at home meant a substantial saving in childcare costs for those with young children
• Work-life balance benefits for employees:
⋅ 54% reported an improved work-life balance
⋅ 62% found it easier to combine work with socialising
⋅ 60% said it was easier to combine care and work responsibilities
⋅ Widely reported time benefits for home activities, from caring responsibilities to hobbies
• Productivity gains for employers, compared with the same period in the previous year:
⋅ 37% increase in rate of revenue grow
⋅ 57% improvement in staff retention rate
⋅ 65% reduction in sick days
⋅ Overall, an increased pace of work but without an increased workload. At the same time, no statistically significant change in perception of intensity or complexity of work
Across a wide variety of different sectors of the economy, these incredible results show that the four-day week with no loss of pay really works.
Joe Ryle, Director of the 4 Day Week Campaign
The trial helped companies to reflect on how they were treating their staff. When implemented properly, it represented a significant improvement to staff wellbeing, being additional to flexible working and appropriate work-life boundaries, and more beneficial than superficial wellbeing perks. It coincided with many companies readdressing efficiency and setting out efficiency charters. In practice, this meant looking for ways to boost productivity, which included:
• Making meetings shorter and more concise
• Being mindful of email volume
• Process optimisation, such as automation of tasks, using productivity tools and reducing the number of people involved in each process
• Eliminating task switching
• Documenting remaining tasks at the end of the day for smoother hand over to the incoming shift
Culture change and the 4-day working week journey
Because time is limited, the 4-day working week is about prioritising what is most important and accepting that not everything will get done. This provides an opportunity to reflect on our attitudes towards completion and productivity. If you’ve ever worked late trying to empty your email inbox or clearing all the items on your to-do list, would it have been wiser to leave some of the non-urgent items until the next day? Would you have felt better rested and sharper the next day?
I think the real ability to switch to a four-day work week comes in prioritising and deprioritising. It comes in getting better at directing the focus, the attention, the energy of the organisation towards the fewer priorities that really matter.
Banks Benitez, CEO at Uncharted
As we’ve seen from the examples of companies that participated in the trial, adapting to the 4-day working week means striving for efficiency, balancing schedules, ensuring good communication, clarifying working patterns, and awareness of the social role of the workplace. In other words, the 4-day working week is really about working smarter, not harder. It’s about using an intentional and evidence-based approach to designing a working culture that prioritises the wellbeing of your people.
The real essence of the four-day work week is around doing things differently… Switching to a four-day work week is going to reveal the inefficiencies in your business. It’s gonna reveal the blind spots that you have as leaders. It’s gonna reveal these subterranean beliefs in your culture that you can do it all. That there are no trade-offs. And so in some ways, this is actually going to surface the things that are not working in your company.
Banks Benitez, CEO at Uncharted
The 4-day working week is a cultural journey towards positive organisational transformation. It can take any size or shape that best fits your company and it doesn’t even have to be about working exactly 4 days a week. As we’ve seen, even companies that didn’t continue with the trial benefited greatly from starting a journey of self-discovery that they will no doubt continue into the future.
96% of surveyed employees wanted to continue with their 4-day working week when the trial ended. Many believed that the 4-day working week could become the future of work, a sentiment shared by a 2022 employer survey by CIPD. Before you know it, the 4-day working week could be coming to a workplace near you.
Productive habits, smarter ways of working and healthy relationships with technology are the heart and soul of Live More Offline’s data-driven approach to creating digital working cultures. You can read our case study on helping a UK charity move to 4.5 day working week here. To find out more about the 4-day working week or starting your digital wellbeing journey with Live More Offline, simply get in touch with us or connect on LinkedIn.