Four-day week; for better or for worse?

Four-day week; for better or for worse?

Post-industrial countries, those with an advanced service sector, are looking for ways to improve productivity. The 4-day week and hybrid working have been promoted as a solution. But some commentators find it counter-intuitive. Let’s look at the facts.

First, we need to define productivity. It’s the amount of work your staff can produce over a period of time. I would argue that’s easy to measure when someone is on a factory production line or delivering parcels, less easy in an office.

Are you measuring how many emails they send? And if Sally sends more emails than John, is Sally more productive? Or is John taking his time to write better emails?

Organisations may need to implement reduced working hours for the same pay or risk losing staff to more ‘progressive’ firms

Also, are some of the surveys simply asking people if they ‘feel’ more productive. Be guarded about reports that claim higher productivity.

Facts about the 4-day week are a little scarce as only a few countries have trialled it – and experimented with a limited audience. Evidence of the benefits of hybrid working is more readily available as the pandemic forced organisations to adopt the new way of working.

The history of the 5-day week

We haven’t always worked a 5-day week in the UK. We used to work on Saturdays.

Campaigns for our modern weekend began in the 1840s but they didn’t become fully accepted until the 1930s.

When we were primarily an agricultural country people worked 6 days a week with only Sundays off to go to Church. The arrival of industrialisation brought something called ‘Saint Monday’. It was a day when workers took an unofficial day off – went drinking and arrived at work on Tuesday with a hangover.

Productivity on Tuesdays fell and so there was pressure to make Saturday an official day off work. Get drunk Saturday, recover Sunday and arrive for work sober on Monday.

Opponents of the campaign argued it would create a lazy workforce, encourage debauchery and cripple production. Sound familiar?

The facts about hybrid

Surveys by the UK Government have shown that productivity didn’t fall when people were asked to work from home. In many cases, they had a longer working day but produced the same amount of work.

The longer hours were a result of taking a proper lunch break, exercising more, collecting the kids from school, completing household chores, etc. – all during ‘work’ hours. In other words, a better work/life balance.

Initial feedback is that staff were happier at work and therefore possibly less likely to change jobs.

Our view and evidence are the real drivers for hybrid working are not productivity but talent attraction and retention. We asked over 180 workers “You’re offered 3 identical jobs – one is 100% office based, one is 100% remote and one is hybrid. Which one would you choose?” The answer was that 66% would choose hybrid, 28% remote and 6% office.

It’s clear if you want the best people you need to offer a hybrid environment or accept low job applications and high staff churn.

The stats on a 4-day week

The facts surrounding a 4-day week are a little sketchy at the moment. Although Iceland, Sweden and Denmark have all trialled reduced working hours, they’ve done it on a limited scale in only the public sector and with mixed results in some cases.

In Denmark, it was trialled by one local authority with just 300 staff and in Iceland, the trial was limited to 2,500 public sector workers (1% of the working population).

In Sweden, they reduced the 8-hour working day to six for local authority care home workers. It was a sector where they had struggled to recruit staff and the hope was that it would make the job more attractive.

The care workers reported less stress, better work/life balance and more energy to engage with their patients. However, politicians on both the left and the right agreed it was too costly as they had to hire additional staff to cover the missing hours. The plan was scraped after 2 years.

The UK may be able to add more evidence as it’s conducting the largest trial of a 4-day week – and not just in the public sector. 3,300 employees at 70 UK organisations have signed up for the programme. But that means an average company size of just 50 staff. Perhaps smaller firms will find it easier to adapt to a 4-day week.

“It just doesn’t make sense!”

There are objections to the 4-day week and hybrid working. Lord Sugar has famously made his opinion very clear.

The response from workers in all 3 Scandinavian countries was positive. They said a 4-day week left them less stressed, healthier and more productive. But is anyone going to complain if they are being paid the same amount for less hours?

The reality is that to maintain productivity staff would have to squeeze five days’ work into four. If they are producing 500 units of work in five days (i.e. 100 units per day) they would need to increase productivity by 25% over 4 days (i.e. 125 units per day). That sounds more stressful, not less.

A 4-day week may not be possible in some sectors. A survey by Henley Business School found that 75% of organisations were concerned about availability to their customers (think about Accountants and Solicitors who need to offer expert advice Monday-Friday).

The obvious solution is to split your workforce so that some level of expertise is always available. But the Henley research shows that employees are concerned about handing their work over to others. In addition, a senior executive on LinkedIn commented that on her 4-day week trial she was still being contacted (and responding) on her fifth day.

It’s interesting to understand what people would do on their fifth day. The Henley report shows people would spend their extra time doing more work! The idea of a ‘side hustle’ has become popular, and 32% of people would do paid secondary employment or unpaid voluntary work.

Productivity or people pressure?

Is the driver for more flexible work because of concerns about productivity or because of pressure from the workforce for a better work/life balance?

I believe that Millennial and Gen Z employees want more flexible work. Organisations are realising to attract this future talent they need to respond to their demands.

The case for hybrid working has already been proven as a result of the pandemic, the evidence in favour of a 4-day week has yet to be seen. But regardless of the results of the UK trial, organisations may need to implement reduced working hours for the same pay or risk losing staff to more ‘progressive’ employers.


Photo by Claudio Schwarz.