Could a four-day working week become the norm?

Need to know:

  • What’s the secret of better retention, higher productivity and improved wellbeing? Some employers think it’s a four-day working week.
  • Four-day working weeks can help organisations to attract and keep the best talent, which employers like recruiters MRL Consulting Group have discovered. Employees also report that they are less stressed and feel they have a better work/life balance.
  • In the aftermath of the pandemic, as employers reconsider all the traditional rules which have governed their relationship with employees, four-day working weeks are one idea to contemplate. However, they won’t be right for every organisation and the finer details need careful consideration.

Remember – back when we all went on holiday – that feeling you would get the week beforehand? Your to-do list would be ruthlessly ordered, items crossed off in merciless fashion. Jobs that might normally take you half a day would take an hour. Do you ever wish you could bottle up that feeling of every second counting, and bring the most productive version of yourself to work every single day?

Some employers think they’ve cracked the code to that strong sense of productivity which seems inextricably linked to a limited amount of time. What’s the secret formula? A four-day working week.

Employers that have taken the four-day leap find that they are in a great position to recruit new talent. Once they’re there, those people are both loyal and highly productive.

Organisations might once have dismissed four-day working weeks as pie in the sky. But now could be the time for a re-think. As we emerge from the Covid-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic, all the rules that were once written in stone about the way we work are up for negotiation. Thanks to this forced period of flexible working, people have proved they can be trusted to work smartly, juggling their other commitments.

Why a four-day week?

Four-day working weeks seem to offer three main wins: better retention, higher productivity and improved wellbeing. When David Stone first considered four-day working weeks, retention was front of mind for the chief executive of recruitment firm MRL Consulting Group.

Stone explains: “The staff turnover and burnout within most recruitment companies is pretty high, and the biggest topic on the table at every quarterly management meeting is recruitment and retention of our own staff. Although we are brilliant at finding candidates, hiring for ourselves is the biggest challenge we have every year.”

Stone recalls a conversation with the manager of MRL Consulting Group’s German office which first sparked the idea. “The manager said: ‘If we go for a four-day week, really good people will want to join our company and our best people will never leave.’ I [said]: ‘Brilliant, you have my attention.’”

After more conversations and research, Stone decided to run a six-month trial. “Everyone was really invested in making the trial work,” he recalls. “We set it that it was Friday off for all staff. There were two reasons behind that: I read different studies where some people did flexible days and others did a set day. The latter made more sense to me.”

With productivity at the front of Stone’s mind, he decided not to increase people’s working hours Monday to Thursday. People are much more focused in the office now, he reports. “There is definitely less chitchat in the office now; I don’t personally call that a downside, I think that’s great. But some members of my staff might say it is probably a little bit less sociable now.”

After the trial, MRL had a 95% retention rate, a 25% increase in productivity and short-term absence reduced by 40%.

Improved wellbeing was another benefit for MRL. An overwhelming 95% of employees said they felt more rested after a three-day weekend and 87% said their mental health was more balanced. Unsurprisingly, the four-day week is now a permanent fixture.

Unilever New Zealand has a similar rationale for its a year-long trial of four-day working weeks, which will run from December 2020 to December 2021. Nick Bangs, general manager of Unilever New Zealand, explains: “The aim of the trial is to unlock more value in the workplace, increasing the focus on output rather than time. The decision also reflects our commitment of ensuring our employees maintain a healthy work/life balance.”

Employees won’t all take the same day off at Unilever. “There is no overarching template that dictates this; all employees will be empowered to work in a way that best suits them and their needs. Therefore, there is no set day off. Teams will agree among each other what makes sense, based on business deliverables and employee wellbeing,” explains Bangs.

Unilever is keen to equip employees to make the best of their shorter time at their desks. Bangs says: “We were interested to see the results of the Perpetual Guardian’s implementation of the four-day week; the [organisation] reported a 20% increase in productivity and improved wellbeing among employees.”

Bangs adds: “To support our teams to make these changes, all workers will be trained in Agile, a project management method; this is about a more disciplined and prioritised way of working. We want to be able to give our employees greater flexibility and a healthy work environment that suits them, that will in turn improve their physical and mental health.”

Practical problems

If they are so brilliant, why aren’t four-day weeks the norm? The reality is that they will not work for every business. “I have worked with two businesses who trialled it and decided to stick with it on a permanent basis,” says Rob Marshall, managing director of Work Life. “They tend to be owner managed, tech-focused businesses where it’s easier for them to quantify the outcomes.”

Marshall adds: “Ultimately, businesses will respond to demand from the workforce. If a business is moving forwards and [it] wants to attract the right people and there is an expectation in a particular location or sector that this is the norm, then [it is] almost disadvantaging [itself] if [it] doesn’t take it up.”

However, in industries like hospitality or manufacturing, introducing a four-day working week could well be impracticable, points out Marshall.

There are also practical problems to grapple with. As a business, do you expect people to do the same amount of work in five days as in four? If that means people end up working longer hours over four days, does that defeat the purpose?

Four-day weeks aren’t right for everyone. As Stone says: “The downside is not everybody is capable of raising their productivity to get the work done in four days. Some people just can’t get the four-day rhythm to the point where they can do their job in four days.”

It’s also important to remember that four-day weeks aren’t a panacea. As Andrew Drake, client development director at Buck, points out: “People quickly forget where they were before. Quite quickly a four-day week becomes the norm and loses its impact. There has to be more than, ‘Hey you can just work four days a week.’”

Drake adds: “If [employers] help people to eat right, be active, sleep well, take time out to do mindfulness or meditation, listen to an audio book – all those things that increase the ability to perform well – that, coupled with a change of working patterns, could have a hugely beneficial impact.”

Employers will have a lot to consider from a pay perspective. Some four-day week employers don’t adjust pay, making it clear that they expect the same amount of output, but in a condensed week.

Others adjust pay and holiday downwards, making it a helpful cost-saving exercise for employers that are suffering financially in the Coronavirus pandemic. As Drake says: “If demand for services has been reduced, dropping to a four-day week makes sense.”

All this will have legal implications to consider, though. Employers will need to consider how to change their employment contracts with employees. What’s the expectation when people are on their day off? Is it treated like a weekend, or should employees be keeping an eye on emails? The answer will vary from organisation to organisation.

But for employers in industries which lend themselves to agile working, four-day working weeks certainly look tempting. “I think output is a much better measure than how long people spend at their desk,” says Marshall.