Why the time to experiment with a four-day week is now

A recent webinar shows that now is the time to consider changing to a four-day working week.



Larger companies need to trial a four-day week to drive the agenda forward so that everyone can benefit from the productivity and well being benefits, according to a leading academic.

Professor Jan-Emmanuel de Neve from Oxford University told a recent webinar on the four-day week that up to now employer trials have mainly been done in smaller companies and there is a need for firm data from larger employers that it works. “The time is right to do something much bigger,” he said.

He has collaborated on a large four-year research programme with BT to record employees’ levels of happiness and their productivity. The research shows a clear link between well being and productivity, with workers being more efficient, taking more calls per hours and converting more calls to sales. That greater productivity was linked to greater work life balance. Not only is productivity improved with a shorter working week, but employers are also more able to attract talent and employees stay longer in their jobs, said Professor de Neve, adding that working hours have not significantly reduced in the UK since the 1950s. A four-day week was also an exciting prospect for the future of work which could motivate people to look forward to the future of work rather than be anxious about it.

Professor de Neve said Covid-19 had showed that flexible working worked and was a big opportunity. It could accelerate moves towards a four-day week. However, he said that there were challenges ahead and raised concerns about the threat that employers might take the evidence that people can work as effectively in four days as in five and move to a four-day week, but reducing wages by 20% and see the four-day week as a cost-cutting exercise rather than seeing it as a well being issue.

Andrew Barnes, co-organiser of the webinar, founder of Perpetual Guardian and author of The 4-day week, agreed that employers could use the four-day week to drive down wages. This had happened in the past and wages had not gone back up, he said. He called for employers to use the next months as a trial with regard to productivity on a four-day week. They could reduce wages, but would need to give a cast-iron guarantee that this would be temporary as the economy recovered.

He said governments also needed to step in and fund retraining, particularly for those in industries which had been massively hit by Covid-19, such as tourism, because workers might need the skills to move to different industries rather than just progress in their own. “The 4-day week can be part of a strategy to assist recovery and reposition the workforce,” he said. Additionally, he said, by freeing people up by a day a week they would not only be happier, but they would have more free time and could contribute more towards economic recovery as consumers.

Other speakers on the webinar included Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of the book Shorter, who promoted the benefits of the four-day week for everything from productivity, retention and talent attraction to sustainability, a growth mindset and an ability to experiment, something that is going to be very important for future crises. He added that a four-day week fosters collaboration rather than dividing employees who work flexibly against others.

Ashley Whillans, author of Time Smart from Harvard Business School, spoke about employees who value time over money and how much happier and more efficient they are and how they have more time for pro-social activities, such as volunteering. She is keen to investigate how we can set norms about greater leisure time and how time off can be optimised better.

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