Pros and cons of the four-day working week

While the shifts we’ve seen in the world of work during the last two years have, by and large, occurred through sheer necessity, it’s hard to deny that a precedent for progression has been set.

This was aptly demonstrated recently when, in a long-foreshadowed move, more than 30 UK companies embarked on a six-month trial of a four-day working week.

And though a somewhat radical step, the general reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. Survey results gathered by WorkNest, for instance, found that 77 percent of respondents were in favour of the move, agreeing that output is a more important metric than time spent sat at a desk.

In addition, recent trials of a four-day working week in Iceland have been reportedly successful. 

However, there are of course two sides to every argument, and with this still being in such early stages, employers must remain wary of both the positives and the potential dangers.

Increased productivity

Productivity is undoubtedly the most commonly-cited benefit among those who advocate for the four-day week.

In a nutshell, the theory goes that a more well-rested workforce will produce an equal (or even greater) output in four days than it previously did in five – and so far, this appears to be demonstrably true.

For instance, in a previous trial of the model, the New Zealand-based real estate planning company Perpetual Guardian found that employees were just as productive over four days, whilst also showing noticeable upticks in job satisfaction.

Numerous other nations can act as case studies for this principle, with Mexico, statistically the world’s least productive country, having the world’s longest average work week.

Equally, the world’s most productive nations (such as Norway, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands) work around 27 hours a week on average – the equivalent of a four-day week.

Pilot programmes in Iceland, New Zealand, Spain and Japan have also produced promising results, including a 25% to 40% increase in productivity, as well as improved work/life balance, fewer sick days, more quality time with family, financial savings, and a more flexible working schedule which leads to better morale. All of this leads us on to the next possible benefit…

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Healthier and happier employees

In addition to equivalent productivity, the Perpetual Guardian trial also resulted in an 8% decrease in employee stress levels.

The potential significance of this link to UK employers is obvious, particularly given the retention challenges many sectors are experiencing in the current climate.

It’s well-known that the labour market is stubborn and volatile at this moment in time, with skills shortages making acquisitions harder than ever, and growing employee dissatisfaction leading to a mass exodus of talent.

The correlation between happiness and retention is key to navigating this, and could arguably be another central motivating factor in the UK adopting a four-day work week.

What’s more, this links back to productivity once again. Some studies, for instance, have even found a productivity rise of up to 18% among happier employees. Therefore, there is a clear argument to be made that a number of benefits, on both sides, can be realised from a shorter working week.

It's not for everyone

Unfortunately, however, just as countless businesses were simply unable to pivot to a remote approach at the onset of the pandemic, there are many business models that are also unsuited to a shorter working week.

On the most basic level, some professions have tasks that simply take longer. In this instance, businesses may find themselves with heavy additional costs for overtime and extra staff, which would of course be counterproductive.

In addition, some businesses will be naturally unsuited due to the requirement for a 24/7 presence. In theory, a shorter working week would cause significant delays and longer lead times, and thus compromise the integrity of the organisation.

Furthermore, even if your business could theoretically cut down on working hours and continue to function, this would require a workforce that is large enough to rotate staff and continue operating at full capacity for the full five days. Inevitably, however, this won’t be possible for organisations such as start-ups that are operating on a skeleton workforce.

Risky business

It’s also worth considering that committing to a shorter working week is always, to some extent, going to be a shot in the dark. With this in mind, business leaders need to accept the possible risks in the first instance.

Cost and profit margins are a big part of this. While the aim is to eventually see an uptick in productivity, it must be acknowledged that at first, employees will be receiving the same pay for fewer hours worked.

Of course, those in favour of such a move will already be equipped with the diplomacy and patience to see positive results yielded. However, those who are sceptical will naturally feel as though they are gambling on something, potentially at the expense of the company’s health.

In addition, despite all the talk around a shorter working week leading to increased wellbeing and satisfaction, there are critics who question the validity of this.

For instance, some argue that the compression of a full working week into fewer hours may in fact become a source of increased stress and anxiety as employees fight to ensure tasks are completed.

For now, one thing is for sure – both businesses and their employees will be eagerly awaiting the trial’s results.

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