In this guide for employers, we examine the pros and cons of shifting to a four-day working week, and consider the practical implications for employers of implementing such a change.
UK four-day working week pilot
Results from the nationwide four-day working week pilot scheme, released in February 2023, have presented an overwhelmingly positive picture from both the employer and employee perspectives.
The pilot started in the UK on 6 June 2022 as a coordinated, six-month trial where employees working for participating firms receive 100 per cent of their pay for 80 per cent of the time ie a 32-hour week. In exchange, staff were expected to maintain the same level of productivity on the reduced hours. The pilot involved more than 3,300 workers at 61 UK companies from across a wide variety of sectors. It was the world’s biggest trial of a four-day working week.
The pilot resulted in a number of positive outcomes including:
- A reduction of two-thirds in the number of sick days taken by staff
- 39% of employees said they felt less stressed
- At least 56 out of the 61 firms which took part said they plan to continue with the four-day working week.
While the UK seems to be following the lead of other countries in the widespread adoption a four day working week, there remains a lot to consider for organisations when considering changing their working pattern
What is the four day working week?
A four-day work week can be defined in two ways; the first is when an employee compresses their full-time hours (typically 35 hours) over a four-day period. And the second is reducing an employee’s hours (typically to 28 hours) over four days, so they are then able to have a three-day weekend.
Pros of the four day working week
The general theory behind the proposal of a four-day working week is that happier, more fulfilled employees are more focused on their jobs and are therefore more productive. It is suggested that having a four-day working week may leave employees with more free time and the chance to improve their work-life balance, thus increasing overall happiness and consequently loyalty to a company.
The specific pros of the four day working week are considered to include:
Improved employee wellbeing & goodwill
A shorter working week should leave staff with more hours to focus on their physical and mental health.
This can also assist staff who have caring responsibilities as well as work commitments. These individuals may feel more able to focus fully on work during the compressed working week in the knowledge that they will have a further day every week to fulfil other tasks outside of work.
Employee goodwill towards your business is also likely to be generated by a four day working week, due to the reduced time and costs of commuting and other costs associated with travelling to and from work being cut by a fifth.
Increased productivity & efficiency
The link between productivity and a shorter working week has been proven by several global studies. Employees are likely to be motivated to look for as many efficiency saving opportunities as possible to enable them to get the same amount of work, or more, done in the up to 35 hours per week they work over four days. This means that staff are likely to become more efficient with their time, which will bring wider benefits to your business.
Productivity is not the only pro to come from a four-day working week. It can lead to happier, more engaged employees who are less stressed and therefore less likely to be absent and take sick days. Four-day work weeks leave employees more time to focus on personal development or spend time with loved ones. This will not only increase employees’ happiness, but can contribute to fewer burnouts, leaving them to be more focused and happier in their role.
Boost employee attraction & retention
With vacancies high across industries, staff wellbeing has been brought into sharper focus. The four day week is being discussed as a potential measure to attract and retain people.
The increase of hybrid working and remote working during the pandemic has led to employees wanting greater flexibility from their employers. Allowing employees to focus more on their mental health and wellbeing mean that they are less likely to look elsewhere for new jobs.
Some of the best candidates for roles you are trying to fill might have caring responsibilities or disabilities which mean that a more flexible working pattern would be advantageous to them. So, to be able to offer a shorter working week could give you a competitive advantage and allow you to hire from a wider pool of talent.
Cost savings for employers
As we have seen throughout the pandemic, those businesses with employees working on the same four days can save on overheads and in some cases even be eligible for tax relief. By working more efficiently over four days rather than five, you could reduce office costs, incur lower utilities bills and reduce related costs of operating premises, such as stationery supplies.
Wider environmental benefit
Reducing the necessity to travel to and from work five days per week coupled with reduced energy usage could reduce carbon footprint.
As we all become more conscious about our impact on the environment, it’s been found that countries with shorter working hours typically have a smaller carbon footprint. This is because employees are reducing their commuting time and office buildings are used less, meaning less energy is being used, which can also save a business money.
Wider economic benefits
A four day week will enable people to have more leisure time to shop, eat out or take long weekend breaks, meaning the four day week derives wider benefits, which depending on your sector could be beneficial for your business by other businesses deciding to introduce this working pattern.
Cons of the four day working week
Disrupting the status quo of a 5-day week could have an impact on company culture, support, salary and more. Implementing a fourday work week can also be difficult as it requires the right support, technology and workplace culture and this simply isn’t possible for everyone. Potential cons of the change in working could include:
Legal risks of changing contract terms
Changing working days and hours constitutes a change to the employee’s contract of employment. It is important to seek legal advice to ensure you are following the correct procedure and are not exposing your organisation to legal complaints, which can sour relations and result in costly tribunal claims. You will need to give careful consideration as to how best to implement the change, consult with workers about the changes and provide them with notice (unless agreed otherwise); and
amend hours policies and entitlements. You must also ensure you do not discriminate against certain groups, such as those who work part time.
Further costs for employers
If your business’ employment contracts make provision for overtime payments, these may be a prohibitive cost for your business. A trial of the four day working week in France found staff were working the same number of hours with a day fewer and companies were having to pay them for their extra time to finish work not completed during the shorter proposed week. There is a financial disincentive for employees to finish work efficiently in these circumstances, which may make employees less productive if they are content to work five days per week.
Greater difficulties in managing a team
If some staff members are working a different four-day week pattern to others in their team, it can become difficult for the team as whole to really get to know each other and the roles each one performs, and training and mentoring more junior staff can also be impacted. It is also likely that employees will want a Monday or Friday off, but if all employees want the same time off, how can the business be operational during those times? A rotation system might be fair but again could be complex to administer for both employer and employee.
Employees may struggle to fit their week’s work into four days
Not all employees may be open to compressing their full workload into four days. They may become unduly stressed and may prefer to spread their work out and ensure that quality is not affected by rushing work.
Employees may find this more difficult to fit around their existing work/life routine
Some employees may have perfected their routine over time and now feel they have the right balance and have made arrangements in other aspects of their life, whether this be leisure activities after work or childcare. To disrupt this may be something which is unwelcome by these employees.
Not suitable for all industries
The four-day working week model does not suit every sector. It is an option that is only viable for organisations who can re-adapt their business to a new way of working.
Some businesses or professions require a 24/7 presence which would make a shortened work week unpractical and, in some cases, delay work – creating longer lead times.
It may not be possible for your business – in some customer facing jobs where the expectation is coverage during all normal working hours it just may not be possible to offer this pattern of working to employees as quality of service would be too greatly impacted, especially if you have a small team. This would not be something within your business’ control but may mean it is more difficult for you to attract staff if they would rather work where this type of flexible working pattern is offered.
If your customers and clients are expecting you to be open on a particular day and you aren’t, there is a chance that they could take their business elsewhere. However, this could be solved with the help of technology such as chatbots and AI. It seems that for a four day week to work effectively, a satisfactory shift-based system would be necessary, potentially requiring new staff to be recruited, or advising customers that the extra day off is a “third weekend day” and not simply a weekday without work is required. This can be difficult to achieve if they aren’t having to adjust their mindset for other businesses too.
Another issue with four-day working weeks is that many employers confuse the concept with compressed hours. If employees are still expected to work 35 hours, but across four days, this can cause a significant decrease in productivity, employee engagement, work-life balance and satisfaction. Naturally, this will quickly lead to more sick days and employees leaving for new opportunities elsewhere; something any business wants to avoid at all costs.
Considerations for employers implementing a four-day working week
Whatever the industry or sector, employers seeking to move workers to a four day working week need to be clear what they are seeking to achieve, that it can be offered fairly, and what are the implications of the change on the business, its customers and operational costs and profits.
The change to a four-day working week creates some practical issues in terms of contractual changes for employers. Employers will need to consider whether the change in working hours is an informal working arrangement or whether it would be considered a change to terms and conditions.
Further, if the basis of the model is that 100 per cent productivity should be achieved, employers would need to consider in some cases how this is measurable and may also need to review internal incentive schemes and arrangements.
For instance, productivity bonus and commission schemes may have to be re-worked to a new base level.
Making the change to a four-day week also brings with it the risk of discrimination claims. Existing part time workers could potentially bring claims for sex discrimination if an employer does not ‘match’ the offer of fewer hours for the same pay – for workers already working part time.
In addition, holiday entitlement may raise potential issues. Employers may elect to reduce the holiday entitlement for employees on a four-day week, in line with the overall reduction in working hours.
An employer can set their own rules on holiday, and can choose to give more than the legal minimum. If you switch to a four day week and keep the standard 37.5 hour working week (i.e. you condense 5 days into 4), your employees’ holiday allowance won’t change. But, if you actually reduce the amount of hours your people are working each week, you’ll need to re-calculate the holiday they’re entitled to. Annual leave allowance is calculated by multiplying the number of days worked a week by 5.6.
A five-day week entitles 28 days’ annual leave a year, which means someone working a four day week would be entitled to: 4 days x 5.6 weeks = 22.4 days. This reduction in annual leave could be met with resistance from some employees.
Employers should consider what would work best for their individual organisation and customers. While there are many pros to the four day working week, if the cons outweigh these for your organisation, you could consider alternative arrangements for a less disruptive, more gradual process, such as adopting a hybrid or flexible working policy instead.
While a four-day working week could have significant benefits to our health, productivity and creating jobs, a reduction in working hours has its financial implications.
A shortened week has been an overwhelming success in many European countries and has worked for some UK businesses, so there is no doubt a huge advantage to a 4-day working week. Nevertheless, it is an approach tgat requires careful planning and management, at least in the early stages of development and implementation. For advice on making changes to your working week patterns and hours, such as adopting the four-day working week, speak to our HR specialists.
Last updated: 21 February 2023