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June 7, 2022updated 08 Jun 2022 12:15pm

UK companies are trialling a four-day week. Will it boost productivity?

A major new trial hopes to prove the benefits of a four-day week. But research suggests it is not without drawbacks.

By Afiq Fitri

Thousands of workers across the UK are starting a four-day working schedule this week with no loss in pay, in what has been described as the world’s biggest trial of a new working pattern.

Some experts have raised concerns over the intensification of work as a result of a compressed working week, with implications for the cybersecurity industry where more than a third of workers are considering quitting their jobs due to burnout. However, recent survey data on the experience of participating businesses in the UK signal how both bosses and employees are reaping the benefits of a four-day work week.

uk workers trialing a four day week
Businesses across the UK have started a major trial of the four-day working week. Credit: Scott Graham

The UK trial, which started yesterday, involves 3,300 workers at 70 organisations, including brewery Pressure Drop and the Royal Society of Biology. Set up by the non-profit 4 Day Week Global organisation, the trial will last for six months and measure the impact the change has on productivity and employee well-being.

“As we emerge from the pandemic, more and more companies are recognising that the new frontier for competition is quality of life, and that reduced-hour, output-focused working is the vehicle to give them a competitive edge,” said Joe O’Connor, chief executive of 4 Day Week Global.

Which countries have trialed four-day working weeks?

Advocates of the four-day work week have long argued that a shortened week increases productivity and evidence from across the globe appears to support this. Similar pilot schemes are already taking place in the US, Spain, and Ireland, while a trial in Scotland was announced last year by the Scottish first minister, Nicola Sturgeon and is currently underway. 

In Iceland, workers took part in a four-day working week pilot scheme between 2015 to 2019 in which researchers from the UK think tank Autonomy found that productivity remained the same or improved in the majority of companies that participated. Another oft-cited example of the benefits of a four-day work week is Microsoft’s 2019 trial in Japan, which reportedly resulted in a 40% rise in productivity. 

Would a four-day working week improve productivity in the UK?

Implementing a four-day work week also appears to give companies an edge over their competitors in an ongoing war for talent. Earlier this year, the Durham-based fintech company Atom Bank saw a 500% increase in job applications after it announced a four-day week with no pay cut for its employees.

But academics from the Digital Futures at Work Research Centre have raised concerns over how a shortened work week might lead to the intensification of work and increased stress, as a result of squeezing the same amount of work into less time. “By focusing so strongly on the where and when of work, policymakers appear to have lost sight of how and how much we are working,” they wrote. 

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“It can hardly be sustainable or reasonable to expect already frazzled employees to keep working to existing workloads with one fewer day a week, which is why, while we support four-day workweek initiatives, employers need to be aware of two important factors,” the researchers said.

The group of academics suggested how employers need to consider revising or reducing workloads before reducing working hours, and how work could “become even more intense and stressful for workers, even if there are productivity benefits to be had.” 

A study of a company based in New Zealand that piloted the four-day work week in 2018 also found that while some workers enjoyed the faster pace of work, others felt the increased urgency and pressure caused “heightened stress levels, leaving them in need of the additional day off to recover from work intensity”. 

In the UK however, a more recent survey of 500 business leaders conducted by researchers at the Henley Business School found that more than a third of companies believed their employees were more productive, and that more work could be done because of the increased productivity. When compared to a previous iteration of the survey in 2019, the figures for the first question remained the same while the latter increased by 1%, which signals business confidence in the merits of a four-day work week. 

The study also found that participating businesses were collectively saving £104 billion by offering a four-day work week. Business leaders were asked to estimate the impact of offering employees a four-day week on their bottom line, from running costs to changes in productivity.

“Responding positively to the call for greater flexibility could be of huge benefit to the workplace and the greatest silver lining to come from a pandemic that has brought such hardship to many,” said Dr Rita Fontinha, associate professor in strategic human resource management at the Henley Business School. 

“Businesses need to better understand their employees’ desires and aspirations, to enable them to recruit the best people and to keep those people happier and more productive in the workplace.”

Read more: Working in the metaverse: Why 3D virtual collaboration is still ‘ten years away’

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