Many workplaces have been experimenting with different types of flexible working arrangements for years now, but the pandemic has made the need for flexibility far more pressing.
This has led to the intensification of many campaigns around flexible working, among them a call for a four-day week. The four-day week has been used in the past as a way to reduce unemployment, for example, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, but the idea has been gaining more relevance in recent years and is becoming a global trend. Spain, for example, is working on a national shift to a four-day or 32-hour week, after a proposal by Vice President Pablo Iglesias in early December 2020.
Unsurprisingly, not everyone is sold on the idea, many presuming that productivity would take a hit and that the transition would prove too costly. But several transnational companies have started to implement the four-day week with positive results.
In 2019, Microsoft Japan ran a one-month trial to test the viability of a four-day working week and reported a significant increase in productivity, as well as a significant reduction in electricity costs and on the printing of paper pages. And Unilever is currently undertaking a 12-month trial among all of the business’s 81 staff in New Zealand.
In the UK, a recent report by the thinktank Autonomy used profitability statistics on over 50,000 UK firms and found that under a worst-case scenario, a four-day week with no loss of pay would be affordable for most businesses once the initial phase of the COVID crisis has passed.
The authors of the report argue that the UK government could prevent a steep rise in unemployment if companies were supported in moving to a four-day week, suggesting that the public sector should lead the way in adopting shorter working hours.
Pre-empting government action, many UK businesses have already started experimenting. In 2019, Henley Business School ran a research project involving over 500 business leaders and 2,000 employees, including businesses that have already implemented a four-day working week (33% of businesses surveyed), looking into the benefits, challenges and alternatives to a four-day working week. The main benefits found were:
- Improving the ability to attract and retain talent;
- Increasing overall employee satisfaction;
- Reporting lower employee sickness levels;
- Increasing productivity.
These benefits have a huge financial impact: the combined savings to UK business is already as high as £92 billion a year, 2% of total annual turnover.
But some businesses are reluctant to move to a four-day week. For example, for those organisations that need to provide customer service beyond standard office hours, a reduction in employee availability would have a huge impact. Such operational difficulties were part of the reason the Wellcome Trust dropped plans to implement the four-day working week.
Other employers believe that the four-day working week would be hard to put into practice because of trust issues. Half of the employees surveyed in our study would not opt for this way of working if they felt their employer didn’t support it properly.
So how can businesses overcome these institutional hurdles to transitioning to a four-day week?
1. Start slow
Despite the evidence of potential economic benefit, some businesses are reluctant to implement the four-day working week. Given this, a good option is to start slow. Unilever and Microsoft are examples of companies that have trialled this work arrangement in sub-sections of the company. Starting with a particular department or subsidiary for a limited time can be a good way to test the water and assess the preliminary results of this change.
2. Engage line managers
Having line managers on board is crucial to implement a four-day working week. If line managers view flexible work practices negatively, they are less likely to make their teams feel that a four-day working week is something that they should pursue without risking their career. Running training sessions where benefits are demonstrated is an option here, but the most important factor is engaging line managers in the decision-making process, so that all operational obstacles can be overcome before any implementation.
3. Engage staff
One of the key reasons that the four-day working week resonates with the vast majority of employees is that it may lead to increased work-life balance. But people are of course different and have varied motivations that need to be taken into account. Even the wariest of employees hold views on the topic, so it is important for line managers and employees to have a frank discussion about how best to improve wellbeing and productivity.
4. Assess processes and results
If an organisation has taken the plunge and started implementing the four-day week, it is extremely important to monitor its implementation: is the shift working? And if not, why not? Based on this analysis, organisations can then decide whether to expand the scheme to their entire workforce.
5. Think about other options
The four-day working week may not work for every organisation, and those that are heavily reliant on customer service tend to tread carefully. But there are other types of flexible working practices. Other forms of flexibility may be more suitable for some organisations, at least in the short term. These include remote work, working part-time (at reduced pay) or a mix between remote and office work.
Undoubtedly, we are moving into a future of more flexible working practices, a future that has been catalysed by the pandemic. The four-day working week has the potential of reducing unemployment, raising productivity and improving life and work satisfaction. But organisations may need to reflect carefully on which forms of flexibility may release the greatest wellbeing and productivity benefits for them and their employees.
Rita Fontinha, Associate Professor of International Business and Strategy, Henley Business School, University of Reading and James Walker, Professor and Head of International Business and Strategy, University of Reading