28 February 2023

This article was first published in International Employment Lawyer on 24 February 2023. The original article can be found here.

The results are in! The UK’s six-month pilot of a four-day working week for five days’ pay – the world’s largest trial of a four-day working week – has been hailed a success. Fifty-six of the 61 participating organisations say they intend to keep to this working pattern for the time being. Coordinated by 4 Day Week Global and run in partnership with UK think tank Autonomy, the 4 Day Week Campaign, and researchers from the University of Cambridge and Boston College, the pilot was no “toe in the water” experiment – it meant business.

Some 2,900 employees took part in the trial. In a busy world where free time is precious, it comes as little surprise that the employee response to the trial was well received. Participants were thrilled – more time with the family, more time for exercise and, of course, more time with the lockdown dog.

Employee wellbeing results from the trial are impressive: data reveals that 39% of employees were less stressed, and 71% had reduced burnout. At a time when recruitment and retention is at the forefront of every Chief People Officer’s mind, those results are not to be sniffed at.

However, for the trial to be successful, productivity also needed to be addressed. Important as employee wellbeing is, no organisation could go into this trial without ensuring that productivity levels within the new working pattern could be maintained. Achieving the same level of output with less time in which to do it made changes to working practices the order of the day. A variety of methods were employed.

As one example, participating organisations reported “reforming the norms” around meetings, leading to meetings which were shorter, less frequent and with more structure. Introducing a “heads down” approach for designated parts of the day, “monotasking” to eliminate wasted time that comes from switching tasks, and the introduction of time-saving technology were other routes put in place to buy time.

Now, few would argue against efficiency. Who hasn’t rolled their eyes (metaphorically at least) in a meeting where the same point is endlessly rehashed? Maybe your particular bugbear is the tome-like report when all you need is an executive summary? And yet, even where the end goal is a noble one, can a relentless drive for efficiency lead to us losing something intangible but invaluable?

When you’re fitting five days’ work into four, something has to give. Ways of improving productivity cited by participants included “creating a task-list to hand over to colleagues or to hit the ground running the following day” and “reforming email etiquette, encouraging staff to be more attentive to the purpose of their message”, and “reducing the number of staff involved in a particular process”. It may be difficult to take issue with any one of these as a single initiative, but when the quest for ruthless efficiency becomes a corporate mindset, inevitably, that comes with consequences – and not necessarily positive ones.

If a casual conversation with a colleague becomes expendable, do we miss the referral opportunity that might have come our way? Does the coaching conversation with a junior colleague about how they might improve a piece of work become a brutal “red pen” mark-up left on a desk? And what happens to the thinking time, to the off-the-wall ideas, to the sharing of insights and the mulling over of trends? Do these become dispensable as “nice to haves” rather than essentials? And does that mean that “good” downgrades to “good enough”?

It’s this discretionary use of time we need to keep an eye on if the four-day working week becomes the norm. If you’re constantly up against the clock it has to be quicker to crack on and hope for the best than to double-check the point or seek input from a colleague – and yet, there is surely not an initiative in the land that hasn’t been improved and refined with the input of others? And what about the reward that comes from building meaningful, fulfilling relationships with colleagues, clients, and contacts? Even with a four-day week we are still in work more than we’re not, so investing time in nurturing and growing these relationships carries a value – albeit one that might be difficult to quantify on paper.

The four-day week is almost certainly here to stay, and, in time, more employers may need to embrace it to recruit and retain their people. However, for workplaces to continue to be hubs of creativity and collaboration, where people think beyond their own “to do” lists, employers will need to show that they value – and indeed expect – some time to be spent looking up, around, and beyond, so that the “head down” approach, with the downsides it brings with it, doesn’t become the default. The roses are out there, and they need to be smelt.

Key contact

Kate Redshaw

Kate Redshaw Head of Practice Development

  • Employment Training
  • Employment
  • Equality and Diversity

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