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What are the benefits and drawbacks of a four-day working week?

Well, that's it, the end of General Election week here in the UK, and no matter where you stand on the results (#MonsterRavingLoon4Life) it's fair to say one of the really eye-catching campaign pledges made by one of the big political parties is that of the introduction of a four-day working week.

For most, the instant reaction to any suggestion of a four-day week is something along the lines of "œwooooooohooo, three-day weekend baby, crack open the bubbly".

But for business owners and leaders, the initial and prevailing reaction can be one of dread and trepidation at the thought of losing valuable staff for an additional day of every week, often with no cost saving in wages.  

Both reactions are understandable, at first glance.

The world of work is changing, with a push towards more flexible working patterns (be sure to read our remote working series) and an ever-growing focus on employee engagement and wellbeing. But while we hear of some companies trialing shorter working weeks, the truth is the hours we spend in work have been steadily rising over the past few decades and if anything we're currently closer to a six-day working week!

However, with a major political party putting the four-day working week question on the nation's table, it may be a cultural-shift is brewing and we could soon see a huge change to the way in which we think of and approach work. And with recent findings that us Brits are less productive than our European neighbours in France and Germany, despite the fact we work longer hours, perhaps the four-day week revolution is closer than most of us think.

Data shows that despite working significantly more hours than France and Germany, the United Kingdom is actually less productive.

So, what are the potential implications of the introduction of a four-day week? What are the advantages and where do likely pitfalls lie? Well, let's take a look.

What is a four-day week?

The key question in many ways is what a "˜four-day working week' means and what it looks like. And, frustratingly that's not an easy question to answer as there is a multitude of potential answers.

The standard working day in the UK is eight hours long and typically a four-day week is spoken about in one of two ways; a 40-hour week, split into four days of ten-hour shifts, or a 32-hour week consisting of four lots of eight-hour shifts. What days those shifts fall on would be more than likely a business-level decision.

The theory generally goes if you opt for option "˜A' (40 hours) then your business more than likely closes an extra day a week. If option "˜B' is taken up, then you arrange days off so that your operating hours remain constant, with slightly lower levels of staffing across certain days, allowing for employees to cover each other's additional day off.

So, why the push for a four-day week?

The idea of a four-day working week has been growing in popularity over the past few years. In fact, a recent survey conducted by US-based software company Citrix found 87% of European workers would take the opportunity to work 4 days a week if offered to them. What's more, 41% said based on their current workload, it would be feasible for them to condense their week down into 4 days.

Meanwhile, advances in technology have significantly sped up the pace at which we work. For example, Weekly10's very own performance review functionality has reduced the time it takes one client to prep for reviews by 80%!

Now that we are working faster than ever in most jobs, and with the likelihood of that to grow further, our ability to do more in less time is maximised.

There is also the fact that more and more we are focussing on the happiness, engagement, and wellbeing of employees. It seems to make sense that less time spent at work and more time spent with friends, family and at home would lead to improvements in these three areas (more on this shortly"¦).

There is also a growing body of evidence that the four-day week is a viable business option, with some recent high-profile trials, from the likes of Microsoft, Perpetual Guardian, and Simply Business.

What are the advantages of a four-day week?

Employees are more productive

It may seem unlikely but it's true! Across a number of trials, one constant that shines through is per employee, productivity goes up when a four-day week is introduced.

Microsoft Japan has been trialing a four-day week with some fantastic business impacts.

As an example, in August 2019, Microsoft Japan ran a feasibility study via a project called the "˜Work-Life Choice Challenge', giving their full 2,300-employee division five Fridays off in a row without any reduction to pay.

By the end of the trial, Microsoft concluded that not only were staff happier and meetings far more efficient but productivity had been boosted by a staggering 40%. As a result they are now planning a longer-term trial for early 2020 and there have been whispers about this rolling out to other Microsoft teams across the globe.  

Harvard Business Review published an experiment in late 2018 which again supports the view that a reduction in time spent at work means we're more productive when there.

Four- day weeks mean happier employees

It might sound simple but, having a three-day weekend leaves employees with more free time. This means more time to see friends, share experiences with family or simply get on top of those chores that pile-up and get us down. Not many employees are going to complain about that.

In the Microsoft trial, they found employee happiness ratings rose by 22% throughout the duration.

Four-day weeks could save your business and staff money

A four-day week can cut costs for everyone.

For example, if your four-day week meant the office was closed an extra day a week, the savings on electricity, heating, desk rental for those co-workers out there could stack up across a year to rather sizable.

Microsoft found electricity use was down a significant 23% over the course of their trial. Paper usage was down a whopping 59% too.

Additionally, employees would be paying less to commute and would cut costs for everyday expenses like lunch and coffees during the day, too.

Staff are likely to be healthier

Data from the mental health charity Mind shows that 1 in 6 of us experience mental health problems in any given week.

With data showing we are suffering more than ever from the effects of burnout, stress, and anxiety, it's no wonder absenteeism is also on the rise. In fact, NHS data shows 37% of British companies had seen an increase in absence related to stress in the past year.

An extra day at the weekend will allow employees to spend more time relaxing and focussing on their home life. They also benefit from the option of an extra lie-in each week which will help them re-charge a little more after a busy or stressful working week.

Microsoft Japan found that staff took 25% fewer days off work during their four-day week trial, and with absenteeism estimated to cost UK businesses £100 billion a year, anything that can reduce that cost is worth a look in our book.

Recruitment and retention

With the shifting demographics of the 21st century we hear lots about the importance of engaging with and attracting millennial talent. Being able to offer the flexibility afforded by a four-day week working pattern is definitely a perk that helps persuade millennial employees to stay with a company.

What are the disadvantages of a 4-day week?

Weighing up what works for your business is key in implementing (or not) a four-day week

It's not going to be for every business

Being realistic, we must acknowledge that a four-day week model won't suit every business. It's an option that is only viable for companies who can re-adapt their whole business to a new way of working, which is in itself, no easy feat.

Adopting a different way of working is a big step that requires a pretty serious culture paradigm shift, so you'll need to consider whether or not a four-day week is right for your company.

Longer hours and work-related stress

In all likelihood, most four-day week schedules will require employees to work the same 40-hour weeks, but in four days instead of five. This means the regular working day goes from 8 hours, up to 10.

Longer days could have a significant effect on your employees' stress and anxiety levels and therefore their overall wellbeing and productivity. It's also possible than longer days will mean childcare issues or commitment clashes that would add an extra layer of complexity to the process.

Top tips for implementing a four-day week

We thought to end this introductory look at the world of four-day weeks, a look at some potentially helpful tips might be of use to the progressive companies out there looking to give a reduced working week a try.

  • Encourage employees to think about how they can work differently, encouraging them to come up ways to measure their own productivity.
  • Work with staff to consider how time off can be organised so customer and business needs are still fully counted for.
  • Start with a trial, ensure you set clear qualitative and quantitative measures of success, and measure them throughout the trial.
  • It is vitally important to measure your success parameters before you begin your trial so that you have solid baseline data to measure all change against. The Weekly10 platform allows the measurement of key metrics including employee engagement, happiness, satisfaction & loyalty through our weekly check-in. If you're even considering the move to a four-day week, it'd certainly be worth a short, free, no-obligation demo to see how Weekly10 can help with your preparation.
  • Introduce an opt-in policy for staff on a quarterly/annual basis. Whether they choose to partake or not in the scheme, your employees may change their minds over time on what works best for them. Ensure they have the option to switch their position if needed.
  • Establish clear personal and team business goals and objectives. 
  • Consider seasonal workflow differences and ensure the policy can flex appropriately.