The Pros and Cons of a 4-Day Work Week

pros and cons of a 4 day work weekAs many of you will have read or seen in the press there is currently an experiment going on in the UK to determine if a 4-day working week, rewarded with a 5-day week salary is both achievable and sustainable.

The pilot programme announced is going to last 6 months and aims to measure both productivity and wellbeing across the period. 3,300 workers across 70 businesses will work one day less a week, with no reduction in salary but they will be expected to deliver the same productivity as during a 5-day week.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the benefits and disadvantages associated with a 4-day work week.

Will the UK Change to a 4-day week?

Can it work, will it work?

Our key question today… is condensing 5 days into 4 going to be just a fad, or is it sustainable?

Interestingly 40 years ago BT were approached by a union suggesting their members work a 4-day week, they said they would work an extra 1.5 hours per day to compensate. BT said ‘no’. Rumblings about a 4-day week have clearly been around for a long time.

For a very different reason, Sri Lanka has just approved a 4-day working week for public sector employees. But the reason here is to encourage people to take time away from normal work to grow food and help the fuel shortage. The reason is NOT to deliver 5-days of productivity in just 4-days.

A few stats on 4-day weeks

  • In 2019, 63% of Britons supported moving to a four-day working week (You.gov).
  • In 2022, 45% of workers (5000+ in 5 countries) listed the ability to control their schedule (start and finish times) as top of their flexibility wish list, trumping more holiday (36%) and choice of where to work (35%) (WeForum).
  • Also in 2022, 65% of employees would take a pay cut for a four-day week (Owl Labs)

Does a 4-day work week increase productivity?

An early participant of the 4-day week trial said ‘87% of MRL’s workforce reported that their mental health and wellbeing had improved over the first 6 months of moving to a four-day work week, while productivity was up 25%.’

Not wishing to detract from their successes, but we are sure we heard some positive comments about productivity and home working during the first lockdowns in 2020 too, only for some organisations to revise their view a year or two later after engagement, collaboration and productivity etc. dropped after an extended period of home working. Perhaps a better gauge of the success of the 4-day week trial would be 2 or 3 years of working the new working pattern, 6 months may prove far too short for a considered view.

In contrast to the positivity at MRL, the CEO of Pimlico Plumbers said ”People just want to get paid for doing nothing. Long term, this isn’t going to work and we’re going to suffer badly.” Always known for his blunt approach to issues, Charlie Mullins from Pimlico did not let us down on this occasion! But again, let’s wait to see shall we, assessing success or failure over a 2-3 year period.

Can’t wait 2-3 years to find out?

If you can’t, or don’t want to, wait 2 years to see whether the 4-day week with 5-day productivity will work, let’s take some time now to explore a few ideas.

In our Jaluch training course on Motivating, Engaging and Retaining Staff we talk about 5 essential factors necessary to engage and retain staff. The link here to productivity of course is that highly engaged staff are often highly productive staff! Lose the engagement and your productivity may well fall through the floor. Ultimately, the success or failure of this pilot 4-day week, as we understand it, will rest on whether productivity can be maintained for the same employee costs. Employee wellbeing improvement is, in our view, really just a great by-product rather than the main aim of the project.

The 5 essentials for great engagement

  • Room for growth – businesses that don’t acknowledge the thirst for personal development will miss and lose out.
  • A fair reward – being paid a fair amount given the work, skill set, experience required and responsibilities (for ‘pay’, include benefits).
  • Trust in the company – achieved mostly through the development of good relationships within the organisation and honest, transparent communications from the business. It’s also often about having a moral compass when it comes to the environment and community and doing what you say you will do, rather than throwing out meaningless promises to staff, shareholders or customers. Having a corporate value of ‘Integrity’ just does not cut it!
  • Environment for success – a focus on development, feeling safe, a no blame culture, having supportive managers, inclusion etc.
  • Authority and influence – being given the necessary authority to do your job and not being managed/micro-managed in such a way that your authority is undermined. This is also about having a voice and having your voice heard.

Lose engagement – lose productivity

Looking at these 5 key ingredients in relation to the issue of maintaining or even increasing Productivity…

Room for growth

Growth opportunities generally present in several ways:

  1. New work tasks that stretch or expand skill sets.
  2. Learning by working alongside more experienced people.
  3. Certificated and non-certificated off-the-job training.

In considering a 5-day week condensed into 4 days if you reduce time at work and with colleagues by 20% ….

  • you will reduce the hours available to take on new work tasks that would bring growth.
  • you will probably lose 20% of current opportunities around learning from colleagues.
  • off-the-job training will likely be cut due to time pressures.

A fair reward

If the reward is already ‘fair’ then reducing days and maintaining reward probably means that your employees are now feeling that the reward is ‘more than fair’ i.e. they are now paid above or upper quartile market rates for the role and the hours they are now doing.

The consequences of paying above market averages can be both good and bad! Great in that you are positioned to attract good talent but not so great as many ‘over paying’ employers find that going forwards they are now stuck with salaries being positioned in the upper quartile plus they often find that going forwards they have under performers and/or disengaged employees who now ‘sit tight’, rather than look for other work. They have adjusted to their pay ‘normal’ and now feel they cannot afford to move. If they did move to take a similar job on similar pay but worked across 5-days would probably feel like a backward step.

The upshot of this is that you get stuck with your underperformers or disgruntled staff who have to be managed out of the business the hard (and long winded way) using your disciplinary procedures.

Beware also any potential equal pay claims if you permit some staff to work 4 days for 5 days’ pay, but don’t allow others.

Trust in the Company

Trust is built not by focussing on tasks and ratings, but through our interactions with people, the senior team, our managers, our colleagues etc. Remove/reduce our interactions and it becomes very hard to develop trust or rebuild trust if for some reason it has been lost. Our time spent developing relationships has already been severely impacted due to the more transactional nature of remote working that affects so many of us, so losing a further 20% of time could be a little short of catastrophic for our social connectivity in the workplace. Reduced social connections also results in reduced collaboration which long term can hit productivity badly.

An Environment for Success

You can argue that reducing hours, improving wellbeing through fewer commutes to work, less downtime travelling to work, more leisure time etc is part of a great environment for success. But if you are losing time for personal and career growth, social interactions/trust building etc then you gain with hand but lose with the other. Imagine if every manager had 20% less time to manage, employees all too often say they are neglected, that will only increase with decreased manager hours. Is that going to create an environment for success?

Authority and Influence

If management by data/people/HR analytics is the way forward to manage our employees when we have 20% less time in the week to manage, then we shouldn’t be surprised to find that our employees will feel micro-managed and that they have lost the authority and influence they thought they had. Overuse of data often undermines trust and can give the perception of a desire to dehumanise our employees. None of that is great for engagement! But, in reality, how can we not look to data analytics to support our managers when we are taking away 20% of their hours?

So part-time/reduced days working cannot work?

We are not saying that part-time or reduced days working cannot work. Many of us in Jaluch already work part-time and have done for years. But there needs to be some cautionary advice:

Part-timers often impress upon others their time effectiveness at work. And many are incredibly productive during their working hours … tasks, meetings etc. all happen with incredible efficiency. However in their desire/need to be highly productive during those reduced hours, what time is left to build relationships, collaborate, invest in their development, to chat? All those things, including the ‘chat’, are essential for the social connectivity and engagement that organisations need for great collaboration, innovation, effective problem solving and ultimately profit and growth. A tendency to over-focus on productivity rather than relationships and organisational sustainability (that then drive growth and profit) can be a mistake.

Our concern is not with a 4-day week, but a 4-day week that demands 5-day week productivity. Losing 20% of time will inevitably drive many into a way of working adopted by so many existing part-timers – feeling a need to prove more than others, to work faster and harder than others, and as a result to forego the relationships and chat at work that so many of us value.

A few more things to think about:

  1. One of those in the 4-day week pilot is a fish and chip shop, how can someone serving customers, often with a queue out of the door, serve 20% more customers on their working days without an impact on customer service or quality, or attention to detail when it comes to taking their money? The only way this can happen surely is if you are currently overstaffed or have staff who are not working effectively?
  2. If you already have staff working effectively and are correctly resourced currently then where do we magic the extra 20% productivity from?
  3. What if poor productivity stems from systems failures, out of date software, procedural inadequacies, lack of innovation etc, reducing to a 4-day week whist maintaining productivity won’t be possible as the ways to increase productivity are, by and large, out of the hands of most of the employees.
  4. If someone works 10am – 3pm (i.e. between school drop-off and pick-up times) and is already a determined whirlwind whilst they are at work, an extra 20% is simply not achievable. So what’s the plan? Are you going to discipline them or dock their pay because you have changed the productivity requirements? Be careful not to lose good competent staff whilst you are experimenting.
  5. In the interests of equality are you going to offer someone on a one-day a week contract an option to drop down to a 5.5 hour day? When do low hours become too low? Be careful not to expose your organisation to a discrimination claim by not thinking it all through.
  6. For years now the government have been promoting and pushing employers to engage their staff onto apprenticeship programmes that demand 20% off the job learning. For those employees already doing 4 days of work and one of study, how will a four-day week impact them?

Final thoughts: should companies adopt a 4-day work week?

Let’s be clear, we are pro the four-day working week. We would love to see higher productivity and better wellbeing of staff but NOT at the expense of engagement and everything organisations have put in place to build cohesive workforces. 

If you look at what people really want from their employers, being at work less each week is only part of the equation. If we are to achieve a new way of working that gives employees far greater work-life balance, but that is also effective and sustainable for organisations, then we need to consider all the relevant factors and we need to stop focussing on Productivity as our Utopia.

But perhaps you have another view? Please do share as it would be great to have a good debate about this whole topic!  

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