What next for the four-day working week?

The results of the four-day week pilot scheme have demonstrated that it is a viable working model. Could the next step be a change in the law? 

4-day week campaign pilot scheme

Between June and December 2022, 70 companies in the UK trialled a new way of working: a four-day week. Employees had their working time reduced to 32 hours, with no loss in pay. The pilot scheme run by 4 Day Week Global was premised on the idea that the standard 9-5, five-day working week is outdated, and it is possible to achieve greater, or equivalent, productivity in shorter working hours.

The pilot scheme was monitored by academics from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge and Boston College. They published their findings in February 2023 which showed an overwhelmingly positive outcome.

What were the results of the pilot scheme?

Over the six-month period, employers found that their revenue remained broadly the same or in some cases rose slightly, despite the reduction in hours.  While productivity proved complicated to measure, employers reported that they were satisfied with the outcome.

Other metrics demonstrated a remarkably positive effect, particularly on employee wellbeing. There was a 65% reduction in sick days and retention rates improved, with 57% fewer staff departures.  Around 40% of employees reported positive improvements in stress levels and sleep and 54% stated that they were better able to balance work and home responsibilities.

In, perhaps, the clearest indicator of success, 92% of employers who took part in the trial, plan to continue operating a four-day week, with 18 employers having made the change permanent.

What are the challenges of the four-day week?

That’s not to say that implementing a four-day week is without its challenges. Questions remain as to how to interpret the four-day week for those working part time.  Should pay be increased by 20%, hours reduced further or is there a case for making no change at all? We consider some of the employment law challenges in our blog, Reconfiguring the working week

And it’s also clear that some employers will find it considerably easier to embrace a four-day schedule than others.  Large client-facing businesses which need to offer a full five-day week service to customers are likely to be less able to adapt.  We discuss the key considerations for employers in our blog, Could a four-day working week become the new norm for UK employees?  

What next for the four-day working week?

The next stage in 4 Day Week Global’s campaign is to present the findings of the pilot scheme to MPs. This is likely to feed into the debate on the Working Time Regulations (Amendment) Bill, which is currently making its way through Parliament. The Bill seeks to introduce a mandatory limit on the working week of 32 hours. It proposes that any hours in excess of this limit would be remunerated at 1.5 times ordinary pay.  However, the Bill is a Private Members’ Bill and is unlikely to be introduced without government backing.

Although flexible working is a priority for the government, the changes it intends to implement make relatively minor amendments to the existing regime, with the most significant proposal being the removal of the 26-week qualifying period. For more details, see our blog, Flexible working: a new regime.

Given the modest nature of these proposals, it seems unlikely that the government would contemplate a more radical, mandatory reduction in working hours across the board. Indeed, in September 2022, during the course of a parliamentary debate, the government indicated that no assessment had been made of the benefits of a four-day working week.

A culture shift?  

However, despite the limited enthusiasm from the government, the four-day week campaign seems to be gathering momentum. 4-day Week Global will launch a national rollout programme in 2023 which will help employers prepare to switch to a four-day week.  

In a sign that the four-day week could be going mainstream, Sainsbury’s is offering staff at its head offices, as well as store managers and warehouse staff, the opportunity to work a shorter working week.  

Perhaps the most telling statistic to emerge from the pilot scheme was the change in numbers of job applicants at Atom Bank, one of the early adopters of the four-day week. After announcing its new working hours policy, it experienced a 500% increase in the number of people applying for vacancies. It seems that in the current economic context of both high employment and labour shortages, a four-day week model will be a key differentiator for employers. Given its popularity with employees, in the current candidates’ market, it may be those employers who don’t embrace the shorter working week, whose productivity will suffer.