Following the pandemic, the world has changed tremendously and with this the way some employees think about life, work, and what they want out of both. Millions of employees had to adapt to working from home whilst juggling home life, while others in the public sector had to carry out their normal duties in the face of new challenges. Now as we navigate our way out of the pandemic, more organisations are considering a four-day work week to embrace flexibility and a balanced work life. 

In the UK, the idea was first considered in the labour party manifesto during the 2019 election, pledging to move the country to a four-day week by 2029. At the time many didn’t see this as a realistic possibility, however with a new outlook on working in a post-covid era, more than 30 UK companies will be taking part in a six-month trial from June 2022 until December 2022, led by 4-day Week Global.  
Countries adapting to a four-day week 

Companies worldwide have been experimenting with a four-day workweek, with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was the first nation to adopt a four and a half-day per week schedule for all Federal government employees, with those in the private sector likely to follow. The biggest study in Iceland was conducted from 2015 to 2019 and involved 2,500 employees across a range of workplaces, such as schools, offices, social service providers, and hospitals. Most employees reduced their working hours from a 40-hour week to 35 or 36 hours, with many working in retail only reducing their hours by 35 minutes a week. This demonstrates the unlikely possibility of all sectors switching to a four-day week; however, the results showed a happier, more productive workforce moving to shorter hours, with others following with the experimentation of a new workweek including, Belgium, Scotland, Ireland, India, New Zealand, and the US. Spain has also announced a 32-hour work week for three years without any cuts in workers’ benefits. 

However, in 2021 Japan became the only government to officially recommended it as a national policy for all companies as they seek to modernise the country’s approach to work, encourage a healthier work-life balance and even boost the country’s economy.  

Pros and cons  

With over 30 companies in the UK already offering a four-day work week, the suggested benefits are: 

  • Improved productivity amongst employees. 
  • Greater flexibility to manage home life or any hobbies.  
  • More opportunities for individuals who predominately need to be more flexible.
  • Less sick days and reduced burnout. 
  • Improved mental well-being. 
  • Boosted economy.  
  • Reduced staff turnover.  
  • Lower operating costs for employers (unless the company is all-remote).
  • More job opportunities to cover more shift patterns in certain sectors. 

Although there are many benefits to working shorter weeks, we shouldn’t ignore the possible disadvantages to this new working model including:  

  • Increased levels of stress due to the same workload in less time. 
  • Risks of low-quality work as employees struggle to fit workload into four days.  
  • Potential for customer-facing industries to be forced to reduce their opening hours or take on more staff. 
  • Less social interaction with employees.  

Following on from this, Belgium has announced a four-day work week but with the same 38-hour week expectation, with the most intriguing change regarding the ability to turn off work devices and ignore work-related messages after hours, without the fear of retribution. This is expected to come into effect by the middle of 2022.  

However, by not reducing the number of hours, organisations need to consider if this is likely to cause fatigue and increased stress for employees. 

Assessing what works best for your business and employees 

Even before the pandemic, we were seeing a growing number or organisations in favour of flexible work arrangements. A selection of companies have experimented with a new working model, these include The Wanderlust Group, Buffer, Wildbit, and Awin. So how do they still provide excellent customer service if each employee only works four days a week? 

Each company has considered what would work best for their individual organisation and customers. Awin, an affiliate marketing platform, decided to offer their employees the flexibility to choose what day they wanted off, with the requirement of communicating with their manager, and each department working on a rotation to ensure there are always staff available with no cut in pay, stating they are paid on output and results rather than hours worked. They made sure to listen to their employees to see what worked best for them, believing people should be given choice and flexibility rather than a one-fits-all approach.  

What it means for non-office workers/employees  

Fitting the four-day work week into public sector roles may be more of a challenge, The Landmark London Hotel has become the first major hospitality company in the UK to embrace this trend and give their chefs more pay with fewer hours, to show their commitment to a healthy work-life balance. With this, they plan to recruit more kitchen staff to sustain productivity. This is also worth considering to for those who work in a physical role where they can’t increase productivity, for instance, delivery drivers and warehouse workers can only pack or deliver as many orders as they can in each period. Similarly, in industries such as manufacturing where employees are creating a physical product that takes a set amount of time are unlikely able to reduce their hours.  

Therefore, allowing this new working model or increased flexibility may only work by increasing staff, leading to more job opportunities. This will require a lot of work and investment which may not be possible for low-margin sectors.

For those where a shorter work week may not be possible, many organisations could opt to engage their workforce to find their preferences to improve their work-life balance and consider this in their operations plan. An example of this is the company Slack. They have a ‘Fri-Yay’ initiative where they have one Friday off each month to allow their employees to take a breath and restore themselves. 

The results from the study taking place this summer in the UK will ultimately impact whether more organisations are willing to adopt this new approach. The pandemic has brought about a culture change in the way many of us think about work and our mental health, with many UK employees changing careers in 2022. This has been labelled as ‘The Great Resignation’ with one of these reasons being able to stay working remotely. Nevertheless, it will be dependent on whether each organisation can see this working for them, the needs of their customers and their employees, to retain staff and stay competitive in the job market. The organisation Timewise helps others shape their flexible working policy and practice across a wide range of sectors. They research, test, and share what works best for each organisation to break the barriers to flexible working, making it more universal and available to all. 

Join the discussion 

Is your company thinking about adopting a four-day work week? Join the discussion online with Professor Emma Parry, Professor of Human Resource Management, Cranfield School of Management on Tuesday 26 April 2022 at 12PM (BST) to hear the debate and share your views on the topic.