Flexible working: The pros and cons of a four-day week

As employees look to change the way they work and maintain a healthy work-life balance, we explore the pros and cons to a four-day working week.
The pandemic drastically changed the way a lot of people think about working and drew attention to the need for greater work/life balance. As a result, charities are now looking at ways to offer slightly different working models to staff. One of these, which has been picked up by several charities so far, is the concept of a four-day week. But what impact – for the better or worse – could this have?

What are the benefits?

1. Happy employees, happy workplace
For many, one of the most attractive reasons about working a four-day week is the chance to improve well- being. A recent survey by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) Scotland found that 80% of people would prefer a four-day working week, with the same pro- portion saying it would improve their wellbeing.

A longer weekend will leave employees with more free time and will allow them more time to spend with friends, family, or even just to relax. An extra lie-in will also give employees more of a chance to re-charge after the working week. Plus, research has shown that happier employees will lead to less absences.

2. Less hours, more productive
The IPPR survey suggests that 65% of workers think a shorter working week would make them more productive.

Some people already work four- day weeks, with compressed hours, meaning they work for 35 hours full- time over four days. Although this is an option, the four-day week proposal that is suggested consists of reduced hours, meaning the employee would work 28 hours over four days with the same output.

Trials so far have proven that this could work. In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Arden began a trial pre-Covid on a four-day working week. Monitoring from an Auckland university found impressive results with productivity (measured per hour) going up 20%. Coming out of the pandemic, Arden argues that more leisure time can also equate to more spending on New Zealand’s tourism sectors, which is on a scale similar to that of Scotland.

New Zealand-based company, Perpetual Guardian, also conducted a trial study of a four-day work week. Not only did employees maintain the same productivity level, but they also showed improvements in job satisfaction, teamwork, work/life balance and company loyalty. Employees also experienced less stress with a decrease of 45% to 38%. The results from this study are relatively unsurprising given that some of the world’s most productive countries – Norway, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands – on average work around 27 hours a week, which is the same hours pro- posed for the UK.

3. Making things more equal
Research on the Gender Pay Gap from the Government Equalities Office shows that roughly two mil- lion British people are not currently in employment due to childcare responsibilities and 89% of these people are women. A four-day work week would promote an equal work- place as employees would be able to spend more time with their families and better juggle care and work commitments.

And as women are more likely to be in these low-paid, part-time roles, a benefit might be an acceptance of lower hours as the norm – leaving men to use their increased leisure hours to take on more unpaid family and household roles.

4. A greener direction
Research has shown that countries with shorter working hours typically have a smaller carbon footprint, so reducing employees work week could have an environmental benefit for your charity too.

Shortening the working week means that employees don’t need to commute as much and large office buildings are only in use four days a week. A trial conducted by the US state of Utah for government employees showed a “significant ecological impact” from reducing the average work week from five to four days using a compressed work schedule. During the first ten months, the project saved over US$1.8 million (£1.36 million) in energy costs and a reduction of at least 6,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions from closing the large office building on Fridays. If employees’ commutes are also included, Utah estimated that it could save 12,000 metric tons of CO2, the equivalent of removing 2,300 cars off the road for one year, simply by working one day less a week.

And what are the pitfalls?

1. Work, work, work
Although some will become more productive, it’s inevitable that a shorter working week will also mean that some people will become less, particularly if those people already have a large workload. If you are considering moving employees to a four-day work week, keep manageable workloads in mind.

2. Money matters
A big company-wide change will bring some of its own challenges. Implementing a four-day week can be difficult as it requires the right support, technology and workplace culture. Unavoidably, new changes will encounter some challenges and disadvantages and it is worth taking these into consideration if you are thinking of a change.

3. Not for everyone
A four-day week is not for everyone; some employees prefer the structure of a five-day working week or would prefer to put in more hours than a four-day working week offers. Likewise, some employees have tasks that simply take more time than others, which would lead to paying more in overtime or drafting in further staff to make up the shortfall (as happened in healthcare for the Icelandic study), which can ultimately become expensive.

Also, a four-day week model doesn’t suit every charity. It’s an option that is only viable for organisations that can re-adapt their whole culture to a new way of working. Adopting a different way of working is a big step, so you’ll need to consider whether it is really right for you and your people.

4. Logistics
When changing to a four-day week, you’ll also need to consider the logistics. One of the first things employees might ask is: how does this affect my holiday entitlement? If you switch to a four-day week and keep the standard 37.5 hour working week your employees’ holiday allowance won’t change. But, if you actually reduce the number of hours your people are working each week, you’ll need to re-calculate the holiday they’re entitled to. Other employee benefits, such as sick leave entitlement may also change, so this will all have to be considered as part of the process. ■

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