Companies must wake up to four-day working

The results of a huge British trial are in: reducing hours benefits staff and doesn’t hurt companies

For six months, 2,900 employees at 61 British-based companies — from banks to animation studios, automotive suppliers to a chippy — took part in a massive experiment where they reduced hours but kept pay the same.

The results were resoundingly positive: all but a handful of companies that took part will either roll the changes out permanently or continue their trials. And no wonder, as four-day working weeks slashed sick days, cut employee churn and boosted worker health, with less anxiety, fatigue and burnout. At the same time, revenue on average inched up — but most importantly, it didn’t fall. 

“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,” said Joe Ryle, director of the 4 Day Week Campaign, in a statement. “Surely the time has now come to begin rolling it out across the country.”

The campaign group will ask MPs to reduce working hours to 32 a week, suggesting the future of work might be four days. “Forward-looking firms may want to get ahead of competitors by adopting a shorter working week,” David Spencer, Professor of Economics and Political Economy for the University of Leeds, told TechFinitive.

Four-day caveats

There are a few caveats to consider with such a study. First, although this is part of a campaign to cut working weeks to four days, companies didn’t simply have to shut on a Friday or forever skip Mondays, as delightful as that sounds. Some did close for a day, others staggered days off across departments. A few took a more holistic approach, clocking an average 32 hours a week across the year, working more at busy times and less in the offseason.

Companies that did opt for a fixed four-day week treated that day off differently: for some, it was effectively the weekend, others used it to catch up when behind, and some saw it as being “on call” if necessary. Indeed, across the study, hours worked fell from an average 38 a week to 34, a decrease of just half a day. 

Another point to note is that such trials are naturally self-selecting. Indeed, nine companies dropped out of the experiment at its start, largely because they felt ill prepared or were concerned by the impact — that’s a shame as it suggests such research reflects the easiest cases, and those who are enthusiastic about the idea.

Then we come to company size. While the trial boasted a wide range of industries — from healthcare to marketing to manufacturing and non profits — the companies that took part were overwhelmingly small businesses, with just 12% employing more than 100 employees and just one over 1,000. Microsoft Japan had a successful month-long trial in 2019, but a longer term rollout at a major multinational would be intriguing to see.

That’s another point to note: this was a short trial. It ran just six months, with the first two months dedicated — wisely, for the best results — to preparation, with workshops and mentoring and support. That means these results reflect a short time period; it will be interesting to see if revenue holds firm over years of four-day working or if productivity eventually slides.

And, once flexible working becomes the norm, benefits such as employee retention could fade as all workplaces offer reduced hours. However, longer term field studies make tracking changes difficult, notes James Berry, Director of the UCL MBA programme, because intervening factors such as other business changes or wider economic impacts obscure the results.

Studying business changes is difficult because being watched makes people more productive — Berry points to the Hawthorne effect, named after a study where factory workers increased their outputs when lighting was turned up. To check the result, the researchers also turned down the lighting — and productivity increased again. When the study ended, the gains disappeared. “It wasn’t the change, it was being observed,” said Berry.

Woman working at home with kids

Overwhelmingly positive

That said, the evidence is stacking up in favour of flexible working and fewer hours at the same pay, following trials in Iceland and Spain, as well as by individual companies.

The study — which included researchers from the University of Cambridge and Boston College — included staff surveys as well as longer form interviews. Data comparing a before baseline with a survey at the end of the trial showed 39% of employees were less stressed and 71% had reduced levels of burnout. That was echoed across the board: 54% reported fewer negative emotions, 15% had better sleep, and 37% reported improvements to physical health.

Half of employees said they found it easier to balance work and life, such as social and family commitments. 60% said it was easier to manage their caring responsibilities.

While that immediately benefits women, who still carry the bulk of that burden, the study showed fathers increased their time spent on childcare by double that of women. This means four-day working weeks are one way to address gender equality and the high costs of childcare that keeps some women out of full-time work.  “A four-day week could help to challenge gender norms — fathers could take on more responsibility for childcare in their day off or men could take on more housework,” said Spencer.

None of this should be a surprise — less time at work naturally means more time for everything else. But it’s notable that stress didn’t increase on average when staff had less time to do their jobs. “There were some people who did feel it was added pressure during the four days,” Berry told TechFinitive.

Employee health improvements should be enough to convince managers of the benefits of four-day working, but companies also reported revenue a slight climb in revenue of 1.4%. Plus, the number of staff quitting fell by more than half — and that’s amid the so-called Great Resignation. Indeed, 15% of staff said there was no amount of money that would make them go back to a a five-day schedule.

Moving forward

“The trial offers clear evidence of the benefits of businesses moving to a four-day work week,” said Spencer. “There appear to be mutual gains: while businesses can raise productivity, workers can gain an extra day off with no loss of pay.”

Indeed, of the five companies that aren’t taking the idea forward, one is trialling a 4.5 day week, the other simply struggled to start in time and is still in the pilot phase, and the remaining three have paused the experiment “for now” with a view to restarting it in the future, said Ryle.

Those companies shouldn’t be seen as failures of this policy. Making this change is a challenge and will take effort. In particular, Berry warns companies to ensure cutting hours doesn’t hurt innovation by cutting out all slack. “You need space to think and experiment,” he says. “There is a little bit of a concern that crunching the work week down so small means there isn’t room for people to experiment and improve systems organically.”

To help companies wanting to make the switch, the Four Day Week Campaign has launched a National Rollout Programme to offer support. “There are challenges in moving from the trial to broader change in the economy,” said Spencer. “Such change will inevitably entail a role for unions and the state. But the results of the trial provide a platform on which to build momentum and support for change across the economy.”

New world of work

Companies that refuse to even consider such changes are now openly dragging their heels on improving the health and welfare of their employees. Of course, reduced hours, flexible work and four-day weeks may not fit all industries — the 9-to-5 doesn’t suit nursing and shift work is nonsensical for collaborative information workers.

But businesses unwilling to rethink the status quo are ignoring a growing body of evidence. Evidence that shows productivity isn’t linked to presenteeism and treating staff well is good for the bottom line. And it’s worth emphasising that we’re talking about a handful of hours a week here: remember that the average work weeks fell by just four hours. So you’re reaping many benefits for a small change. “Every manager, every leader should be examining whether this might work for their organisation,” Berry said.

And employees clearly want more. In the wake of the pandemic’s Great Resignation, unions have seen a resurgence, employee churn has skyrocketed, and many aren’t returning to work. Smart companies will read the writing on the wall: it’s time to do better. With evidence like this trial showing four-day weeks can be done well without a revenue hit, there’s no longer any excuse not to try. “A four-day work week is the future of work,” said Spencer. “The quicker we achieve it the better for all of us.”

Next, read Nicole’s article about the future of the workplace in 2030 and how to best manage your workforce in a flexible business.

Nicole Kobie
Nicole Kobie

Nicole is a journalist and author who specialises in the future of technology and transport. Her first book is called Green Energy, and she's working on her second, a history of technology. At TechFinitive she frequently writes about innovation and how technology can foster better collaboration.