Last reviewed 9 September 2021

There has been a significant amount of discussion recently concerning the benefits of a four-day week. This is an opportune time to consider if you want to offer this to employees.

Coming out of the Coronavirus pandemic many employees are reconsidering their work environment; whether to work from home, to start work for themselves or perhaps to give up work entirely. Furthermore, there is a shortage of workers in many industries and employers may need to consider how to attract, or retain, employees.

What is the four-day week?

The four-day week is what it says it is. Employees work for just four-days a week. This does not mean the employee squeezes in five days of work in four days. If the employee normally works for 8 hours a day, they will now work 32 hours in the week instead of 40 hours. The employee will, however, be paid for 40 hours; effectively an increase in the hourly rate. But, employees are still expected to produce the same amount of work in the four days as the would have produced in the normal five days and consequently the employer does not lose out.

Origin of the idea

In 2018 a company in New Zealand, Perpetual Guardian (that manage trusts, wills and estate planning), adopted the four-day week following a successful trial. The company conducted the trial amongst its 250 staff. This found that staff were more focused and productive after the trial and better able to manage their work-life balance. Staff were found to have lower stress levels and higher levels of job satisfaction. Data was collected during the trial concerning the levels of work performance. The result was that productivity during the trial increased. The owner of the business stated that the “right attitude is a requirement to make it work – everybody has to be committed and take it seriously for us to create a viable long-term model…”.

Findings

4dayweek is a not for profit organisation that promotes the four-day week working concept. It has found that 63% of businesses found it easier to attract and retain staff with a four-day working week. The organisation has also found that 78% of employees are happier and less stressed.

The theory behind the idea is “Parkinson’s Law”; work expands to fill the time available. Also, the concept that 80% of productivity is achieved in 20% of the time available. This gives staff plenty of ability to complete their tasks for the week in the four days available. A survey by voucher cloud in the UK of 2,000 full-time office workers found that the average time spent working was 2 hours 53 minutes each day. The rest of the time was spent on social media, making personal calls and texts, talking and other non-work matters.

The four-day week is not, however, for everybody. There have been some unsuccessful trials. A notable example was a Swedish nursing organisation that could not make the new arrangement work and they reverted to their original method of operating.

Flexible Working

An alternative to the four-day week is working fewer hours in the day. Some employers are experimenting with 6 hour working days for five days a week as an alternative to the four-day week. This may be an option where there is a need to ensure customer facing roles are maintained. Other flexible working arrangements can include:

  • Part-time working;

  • Home-based working;

  • Annual-hours contracts;

  • Teleworking; and

  • Compressed working weeks.

An annual hours contract is where an employee is required to work a number of hours in a year and can arrange those hours over the year where it is most appropriate for the employee and employer. This works well where there is seasonal work. For example, if a person is required to work 7.5 hours a week for five days a week over 48 weeks that is 1,800 hours in a year. Where the work load is mainly in June, July and August, the employee and employer may agree that 200 hours a month is required for those months. The quite periods may be in December and January and the employee may work 100 hours a month in those months. The remaining 1,000 hours can then be spread over the remaining 7 months (about 140 hours a month).

Compressed working weeks are where the same number of hours are worked, but over fewer days. Thus, if the employee is required to work 40 hours a week, but works four days a week, the employee will need to work ten hours a day on those four days. It should be noted, however, that studies have shown that the longer hours does not necessarily result in effective productivity. Individuals get tired and bored, so long hours often mean a number of wasted hours.

Benefits for the employer

So far, the four-day week and flexible working seems to have concentrated on the benefits to the employee. There are, however, significant benefits to the employer. As mentioned previously there is greater employee engagement, employee job satisfaction and less stress. This all leads to improved productivity; employees offered benefits that they value work harder for their employer. They also value their job more highly and are more loyal to the employer.

Flexible working may allow the employer to reduce their office space and overheads, leading to a direct saving. The type of flexible working offered can also be designed to give benefits to the employer. For example, where the business is seasonal annual-hours contracts can be offered. Where workloads are high in a few months of the year the employees can concentrate their work hours in these busy periods, and work fewer hours in the quieter periods, whilst being paid evenly throughout the year. This gives certainty to the employee and ensures the employees are employed productively throughout the year.

Flexible working can also lead to reduced absenteeism and staff turnover. In the USA the large accountancy firm Deloitte found employee savings of over USD$41 million per annum.

Allowing staff to work from home on the occasions they need to be at home can provide benefits to both parties. For example, where there are weather issues (such as snow drifts on roads) the employee can be safe at home and still work. Where the employee has a sick child, the child can be cared for at home and the employee can continue working.

Customer relations is a vital aspect of business life. It has been found that flexible working has led to reductions in customer complaints. But, it is necessary to ensure that customers can still contact the employees either at home (if there is home working) or that the work rosters are such to provide full coverage at the office if there is short-time working or four-day a week working.

Technical issues

One thing that lockdowns has shown is that working from home is possible. The necessary technology using computers linked to office systems, Zoom meetings, WhatsApp and other technology allows for the necessary connectivity and cohesion between workers and the office. The biggest problem, however, is not the technology, but managers being able to manage staff that are not directly under their eyes in the office. This may require greater trust and improved management skills. Ultimately systems need to be in place to ensure that work is undertaken; how much paperwork is processed, what are the results of the employees’ work day etc.

Implementation

Before implementing a major change to employee working conditions it is necessary to engage the employees regarding the change and obtain their ‘buy in’. The HR department, IT department and employment lawyers also need to be engaged to ensure that all current laws are complied with and the appropriate systems are implemented.

Change cannot just be made without consultation and guidance as to how the system will work. For example, if there is to be a four-day week, what days are people expected to be in? How will work levels be monitored? Will there be a trial period to ascertain if the change is successful? If it is not successful, will the trial be ended?