From June to December last year, almost 3,000 UK workers from a diverse range of sectors trialled a four-day week with no loss of pay in the biggest pilot study worldwide to date.
Organised by 4 Day Week Campaign, London-based think-tank Autonomy, 4 Day Week Global, alongside researchers at Cambridge University, the six-month trial analysed how employees respond to a shorter week. For the vast majority of workers taking part in the trial, the impact was transformational: less stress, fewer sleep problems, better work–life balance, and more time for themselves, their friends and family.
However, it wasn’t only workers who benefited; businesses flourished too. Since the trial has finished, 92 per cent of the companies who took part have continued with a four-day week with no loss of pay. The vast majority of companies reported that productivity had either increased or remained the same. Revenue increased by 1.4 per cent on average. Sick days were reduced by 65 per cent and there was a substantial increase in employee retention.
“You can’t change things without things changing”
The official report following the trial indicates that the success of implementing a four-day week can be anticipated by two important measures in the planning stage: rethinking organisational practices and employee involvement. The report shows that staff were better rested – and substantially so – which made them more motivated and therefore more productive.
However, every company that took part in the pilot also took the opportunity to rethink some of their organisational practices to fit the same amount of work into four days. As one of the participants of the trial said: “You can’t change things without things changing.” The most popular ways this was achieved included making meetings shorter, designating periods of quiet focus, ‘monotasking’ to reduce task-switching and distractions, and automating as much administrative work as possible.
For Pressure Drop Brewing, a London-based brewery with eight employees, this included reorganising their manufacturing process to become more efficient by discovering ways to meet new production targets. Of the different possible implementation models for a four-day week, the brewery opted for a staggered approach to maintain production over five days. One half of the production team had Friday’s off and the other half had Monday’s off, swapping each month.
For Merthyr Valley Homes, a Welsh co-operative housing association with approximately 250 employees, the pilot process was repeatedly described as ‘refreshing’ because of how implementing a four-day week had become a catalyst for wider organisational change.
Employee involvement, especially in the preparatory stages of the pilot, was considered key. The small London brewery described a new sense of collective involvement with everyone ‘mucking in’. The much larger housing association adopted a decentralised model so different departments with different operational needs could find the right strategy. For Merthyr Valley Homes, such adoption strategies included a rolling rota system. At the start of each month, staff booked their days off, which accommodated for shifting flexibility.
The concern was ameliorated after deciding with a union representative that the reduction of working hours for part-time staff would be calculated by month, rather than by week, resulting in a regular full day off for part-time workers as well.
This particular case study demonstrates the importance of including part-time workers in the preparatory period to avoid potential inequities among staff and supporting union discussion that produces novel, equitable solutions.
A win-win for women, families, and society
A Women’s Budget Group report released last year stressed the importance of flexibility in implementing a four-day week, especially for women, working parents and employees with additional caring responsibilities. Moving everyone to a four-day week with no loss of pay would mean that, as both men and women are working less, there would be a more equal share of paid and unpaid work, including childcare, housework and caring responsibilities.
Additionally, shorter working hours have been associated with a reduction in the gender pay gap as women often have to take work that prioritises flexibility to accommodate for caregiving responsibilities over job stability and better pay.
One couple with children, working at the same organisation during the trial, were able to plan their extra day off on separate days. The couple reported back tearfully because they had saved 40 per cent on childcare costs, a significant reduction during a cost-of-living crisis and a time of high childcare costs that are forcing many women out of the workplace.
Where do we go from here?
The simplest advice to any organisation considering a four-day week would be to speak to your workers first and ensure that there is clear and open communication throughout the implementation process.
Decide what works best for your organisation together and focus on what you want to achieve as a team. If a task doesn’t contribute towards the aims of your organisation, then reconsider its necessity. There were a range of implementation strategies in the UK trial, adapted to best fit the needs of the organisations taking part.
There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, but in the small instances where the switch to a four-day week was less successful, the organisations adopted a more top-down approach. This included conditional models that suspended teams and departments from the trial when certain performance targets were not met. The payoffs of a four-day week in the form of better mental health and work–life balance were lower for employees in these companies because of the lack of transparency from senior staff and unpredictability surrounding time off.
The UK pilot showed that a transition to a four-day week cannot happen overnight, but instead requires careful planning, preparation and involvement between employers, employees and trade unions.
Change can be difficult to imagine when you’re used to a certain way of working. The 9-5, five-day working week has become a part of our culture despite increasing evidence that it is no longer fit for the needs of the 21st century. The five-day model of work was designed for an industrial economy that is unrecognisable from the one we have today – it’s fair to say that we are long overdue an update.
Mariam Salman is campaign officer and Grace Robinson is member of 4 Day Week Campaign
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