Could a four-day working week become the new norm for UK employees?

As increasing numbers of organisations are utilising evolving technology and communications to streamline processes and automate tasks, could this represent an opportunity for employees to benefit from a reduced working week and, if so, what impact might this have on employers? 

Workplace flexibility has become an increasingly important focus for many employees and organisations, particularly in the quest to attract and retain the millennial generation (see How to get the best from a millennial workforce). A number of recent studies have found that millennials are the most “culturally mindful” generation and have a new approach to workplace productivity and flexibility, believing that productivity should be measured by the output of the work performed rather than by the number of hours worked at the office .1

This week, the four-day week has hit the headlines again as it has been widely reported that the Wellcome Trust (a London-based science research foundation) could become the first major employer in the UK to launch a four-day week for its 800 head office staff with no reduction in pay. The Wellcome Trust says it is considering the move in a bid to boost productivity and improve work life balance and has asked other employers who have implemented or considered a four-day working week to come forward to share their thoughts and experiences.

The Wellcome Trust isn’t the first employer to experiment with the working week:

  • A two year trial in Sweden where workers switched to a six hour working day found that the shorter working hours resulted in happier, healthier and more productive employees; 
  • In 2018 New Zealand company Perpetual Guardian switched its 240 employees to a four-day working week and found small increases in total output despite the shorter working hours; and 
  • Amazon has tested a pilot program where staff worked 30 hours per week for 75% of full-time pay and a full benefits package.

What are the key considerations for employers who may be considering implementing a reduced working week?

  • Is your organisation’s work suited to a reduced working week? Is it feasible for your organisation to operate on a four-day week or would you need to operate a skeleton staff or rota system for the fifth day? It is likely to be easier for an organisation whose work is predictable and not time critical to implement a reduced working week.
  • What would the costs of a reduced working week be for your organisation? The Swedish trial referenced above found that the increased costs of a six-hour working day (primarily for additional headcount) meant that it was unlikely to be feasible in practice. However, such costs may be offset by other costs savings e.g. (a) increased productivity as reported in the Swedish study and by Perpetual Guardian; (b) reduced employee absences due to improved employee health and wellbeing; (c) reduced employee turnover; and (d) reduced operational office costs. 
  • How would a reduced working week be perceived by your organisation’s stakeholders, customers or clients, the public etc.? Would a reduced working week be detrimental to your organisation’s reputation or ability to deliver its services in any way?
  • Would a reduced working week be an effective recruitment and retention tool? Would it be effective in differentiating your organisation from its competitors as an attractive place to work with a better work/life balance and an increased sense of work satisfaction? Would it make it easier to recruit and/or reduce employee turnover, therefore reducing the costs of recruitment and training?
  • What would the benefits of a reduced working week be for your employees? The limited trials of reduced working weeks to date have consistently reported that it resulted in employees having lower stress levels, higher levels of job satisfaction and an improved sense of work-life balance.
  • Would a reduced working week contribute to improving your organisation’s diversity and inclusion? The traditional full-time work schedule is unlikely to be a “one size fits all” model and a reduced working week is likely to be more accessible to a more diverse pool of employees.
  • Would a reduced working week improve your employees’ performance? Would it improve employees’ commitment and motivation? Would it allow your employees the breathing space to come up with new ideas and problem solve in their downtime?
  • Are there other considerations to take into account? Will you only offer a reduced working week or will employees have the option to work five days if they wish to do so? Will different terms and conditions apply to those who opt-in to the reduced working week?

Having regard to the above considerations, careful thought and planning will be required before an organisation decides to make the change to a reduced working week. A reduced working week will not suit every organisation, but where it is feasible there are clear benefits for both employers and employees.

Like the Wellcome Trust, we would be really interested to hear from anyone who has considered or is considering implementing a reduced working week.

1.PwC’s “NextGen: A Global Generational Study”