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Will employers be forced into a 4-day working week?

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The potential of a mass shift to a four-day working week has been a revolving discussion for many years, but as a national trial is now underway, and many organisations are giving it a serious try, is now the time to give it further consideration? Is the UK ready to embrace the 4-day work week?

While most trials in the UK are in the early stages the initial feedback is positive. Most workers involved in trials have seen a positive impact on wellbeing. As UK trials are in their infancy, employers may have to look overseas to answer their questions about the impact on productivity long-term. The question is, will the current candidate-driven market force employers to act as radically as dropping a working day while maintaining salaries? As businesses face challenges around recruitment and retention it is crucial to do everything possible to be a desirable employer and not get left behind.

The old school mindset around the working week

Historically it was the norm for British firms to require their employees to work six days per week, and that sixth day didn’t give up without a fight, dropping to five and a half days for a very long time. It wasn’t really until the 1970s that the half day finally gave way, making a five-day working week, and a two-day weekend, the norm we know today. 

Is it now time to review this? Many certainly think so. The 4-day week pilot programme began this month. The programme is a six-month coordinated UK trial of a four-day working week, with no loss in pay for employees. This is the world’s biggest trial of this working pattern. It runs alongside other pilot schemes taking place in Australia, New Zealand, The United States, Canada, and Ireland. The trial is based on employers promising 100% of pay for 80% of the time, in exchange for a commitment from employees to maintain 100% productivity. 70 UK companies have joined the trail, meaning that more than three thousand employees across many different industries are currently working a four-day week, with no loss of pay. Researchers at Cambridge University, Oxford University and Boston College are involved at every stage, recording data on the progress, and measuring the successes and failures of the trial. 

Scotland adopting the shorter work week

49 Scottish organisations have signed-up to join the current trial. In September 2021, Scotland’s progressive think tank IPPR Scotland (The Institute for Public Policy Research) published results of a study on the topic of the four-day working week, with the aim of encouraging the Scottish Government to trial such pilot schemes. 

The study found that 80% of people believed that cutting their numbers of days at work would have a ‘positive effect on their wellbeing’, and 88% of the working-age participants in Scotland said they would be willing to take part in shorter working time trial schemes if they were piloted by the Scottish Government. 65% per cent of the study’s participants believed that reducing the working week by a day could have a positive impact on Scotland's productivity. 

The results and conclusions of the four-day working week trial should be released next year, and will no doubt be of great interest to employers and employees alike right across the UK. The results of the trial could be lifechanging for many. 

More hours do not equal more productivity

Here in the UK, we have a high average working week, in terms of number of hours worked. The UK average currently sits at 36.5 hours but working longer hours doesn’t necessarily mean greater productivity. It can actually have quite the opposite effect. Germany, which has a reputation for high productivity, has people working a much lower number of hours, averaging just 26 hours per week. In the UK we also have less time off than many other countries, England and Wales only enjoy 8 bank holidays each year, making them the second lowest in the world. Scotland has 9, and Northern Ireland has 10, still falling far behind most other nations, some of which receive as many as 18. 

How can our current working culture adjust to the possible change to a four-day working week? It is certain there will be support for the change, and likely also great resistance. We can expect fierce debate in 2023. Adopting this kind of change may not immediately appear to be suitable for all organisations, or all industries. Or maybe a change of mindset is required. It may soon become seen as ‘old school’ to insist on sticking to a five-day working week. 

Do employers have a choice?

Post-pandemic and post-Brexit, we are already seeing huge challenges around recruitment and retention. Candidates have more choice, and they have greater demands, seeking higher salaries to match the increases in the cost of living, and with many wanting more flexibility around home working to improve their work/life balance. 

Should the four-day working week trail prove largely successful, we can expect to see candidates also adding the preference for a four-day working week to their list of wishes when looking for their perfect job. Will that mean that organisations who choose to stay with the old five-day working week, could become less appealing to the candidate market? Will those employers find their options narrow even further when recruiting new workers? It would appear that careful forward-planning, and consideration of such eventualities should be a top priority for all employers now. Progress may happen quickly, and it’s crucial to not get left behind.