Sign pointing to a 4 day weekThe idea of a universal four-day working week – with the reduction in working time intended to bolster productivity and wellbeing – is not new. In 1956 Richard Nixon argued (perhaps a little prematurely) that “the four-day work week is inevitable”; from 2007-2011 Republican politicians in Utah redefined the week for State employees as from Monday to Thursday; and in the 2017 election the Green Party included the four-day week in its manifesto, to almost universal derision.

Nonetheless, the notion has not gone away.  A six-month pilot programme is being launched in the UK from June to December this year, testing the possible advantages of that short week for both employers and employees. The programme is being organised by 4 Day Week Global alongside think tank Autonomy, the 4 Day Week UK Campaign and academic researchers at Cambridge, Oxford and Boston.

The participating employers will impose no reduction in pay for employees, based on the 100:80:100 model – 100% of the pay for 80% of the time, in exchange for 100% productivity. About 30 companies have signed up for the trial, allowing staff to work 32 hours every week while leaving their benefits unchanged. The pilot will run in parallel with similar programmes in the USA, Ireland, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.  UK companies involved include the training company MLB Seminars, communications firm Yo Telecom and videogame designer Hutch Games.

Numerous studies have shown that moving to a four-day week can provide a boost to organisations. When Microsoft trialled a four-day week with no loss of pay in Japan, productivity is said to have increased by 40 per cent.  In November 2021, Atom Bank became the largest UK four-day week employer with all 430 staff moving to a 34-hour working week with no reduction in salary.  CEO Mark Mullen told The Standard there was a subsequent positive trend in sickness, staff attrition and customer service. While the policy has obvious perks for employees, Joe O’Connor, Pilot Programme manager for 4 Day Week Global, claims it could also benefit employers through boosting employee retention during the post-pandemic “great resignation”. The positive environmental impact, and the working access it would give to those with more flexible life arrangements are two other positive factors.

However, the big unknown in this is the 100% productivity question.  The UK has some of the lowest productivity figures in the industrialised world and obviously the maths for employers would look very different if the new arrangement turned out to be 100:80:80 or, maybe more likely at current rates, 100:80:70.

Employment implications

If the whole thing turns on increased productivity, then there will not be much scope for employers to let indifferent performance go unacted upon any longer, even if it has been tolerated, perhaps positively rewarded, up to now.  That may mean that productivity bonus or commission schemes will have to be reworked to a higher base, that automatic salary increases may have to stop being automatic, that a failure to reach the necessary 100% will have to lead to performance management measures and ultimately dismissal far more quickly than hitherto and many other contractual changes.

Employers will also need to look again at the viability of part-time or WFH arrangements.  These may have been ok if 80% productivity is enough, but may struggle if we now need 100%.  The same could be true of adjustments made for disability which were reasonable against previous productivity expectations but may not be now.

Then we come onto the question of whether it will be reasonable to expect your employees to up their productivity after what may be many years trundling along at a lesser rate.  There is no rule that what has been acceptable must always be so, but requiring such a leap overnight is clearly not fair.  An employer considering this move will therefore want to look at training in the run up to it and an acclimatisation period after it (the longer/better the prior preparation, the shorter that period can be).  Consideration might be given to creating a two-tier workforce, one for the driven four day week people knocking it out of the park in productivity terms, and the other for those of your staff who prefer a gentler environment, even if over a longer week or for less money.  That may be consideration which won’t take long in most cases since the administrative and operational complexities of that are scarcely believable, but it is nonetheless something to be seen to think about.

Shifts will require to be re-worked, especially in any workplace involving continuous processes.  Employers would have to consider exceptions where there simply isn’t the scope to increase productivity by the percentage required to compensate for the reduced working time.

So this is not to say that the four day week will never take off more widely than it has so far.  If it can increase UK productivity overall to permit continuing competition with countries where it is not introduced, all to the good.  Even where the economics do stand up, however, employers proposing such an arrangement should not forget the numerous contracts, practices and procedures which will need to be revisited to make it all work on the ground.