In favour of a shorter working week

Could the 4-day week become the norm after the world’s biggest trial in the UK?


Could the four-day week on full pay become the new norm? An event at this year’s Cambridge Festival explored the findings of the biggest ever pilot of the model, setting it against previous promises that technology would free up more leisure time and against previous successful attempts to reduce our working time, such as the move to the eight-hour working day.  “Time is something that must be fought for,” said Dr David Frayne, a sociologist at the University of Cambridge, one of the academic institutions overseeing the trial.

The six-month trial last year has got a lot of media coverage. Employers who took part, representing around 3K employees, had to commit to a meaningful reduction in hours without loss of pay. A survey was conducted at the beginning, middle and end of the trial as well as interviews with CEOs and employees. 

Different employers adopted different models – most did a four-day week; some staggered the four days to cover a full working week; others opted for a more decentralised model such as shorter days over five days or an annualised approach; and others made the four-day week conditional on performance targets being attained. Some employers imposed the policy in a top-down manner while others engaged with their workforce about how it might work and how they could work more efficiently, for instance, through having fewer or shorter meetings. The motivations of employers also varied a lot – for some, for instance, it was about retention while for others it was brought in to address overwork.

Over 90% of participants said they would keep offering a four-day week as growth was up, the number of people leaving was down, hiring costs were down and sick days reduced. There was also a decrease in burnout and stress and employees found it easier to balance work and care, while men significantly increased the amount of time they spent on childcare. Other benefits included saving on childcare costs

A third of employees said they had to work more intensely as a result, a third said there was no change and a third said the intensity with which they worked had reduced. The vast majority said they didn’t have to do more overtime.

Ninety-six per cent of employees preferred the four-day week and 18 employers have made it a permanent feature. “The needle has shifted in terms of what people think is possible,” said Frayne.

The researchers gave one example of a craft brewery that adopted a staggered approach with some workers working Monday to Thursday and others working Tuesday to Friday. They prepared extensively for the trial and workers – through their own choice – tried to speed up the brewing process.

Employer vs employee control

In a discussion about the pilot the researchers said it was interesting that the pilot was presented as offering a business benefit in terms of productivity rather than being about employee rights. There was a discussion about how much was dictated by employer expectations. Some employers seemed to expect employees to be available on their ‘day off’ and some were ‘disappointed’ that more employees didn’t use their day off to volunteer. Some employees used the extra day to do a second job, but some managers didn’t like this as they said the aim was to encourage employees to have more time to rest.

Frayne said that, despite this, it was clear the trial marked an important place on the road to a shorter working week.  “The cat is now out of the bag and what passes as normal is being challenged,” he said, adding that there has been a lot of interest. “I find it hard to see that it will not amount to something,” he added, saying it is up to us all to shape where it goes next and to ensure that everyone benefits, including those in frontline public sector jobs such as the NHS where staffing is already overstretched. Scotland and Northern Ireland have announced public sector trials and Wales is expected to follow. The researchers were asked about political support after the policy went down badly during the last election when it was part of the Labour party manifesto. The researchers said this might be due to the way it was presented and they would be interested to see what happens next.

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