There has been rising interest in the idea of a four-day working week partly as a result of well-publicised trials in the UK launched this year, involving 70 companies which are experimenting with reducing working hours for staff without reducing pay. More broadly, increased attention on the issue is also likely to have been heightened by people’s experience of the pandemic which highlighted that different ways of working are possible, prompting a rethink for many about how they want to work. 

While the specifics of this article are focused on a UK context, the broader principles and implications should be of interest wherever you are based.

The UK four-day working week trials are being run by the think tank Autonomy and researchers from leading universities. The initiative and similar government-backed trials in Spain and Scotland have led to the idea of a shift to a four-day working week gaining greater public awareness and becoming a topic of much debate.

The challenges that it brings with it

However, what is much less clear is how widespread is the interest in the four-day week among employers, how feasible they think it would be to introduce in their organisations and how quickly a broader shift across the economy to a shorter working week might happen. In response, the CIPD has published research, which explores employer perspectives on the four-day week, and also includes a detailed analysis of UK workers’ current working hours and preferences. 

What this shows is that while a third (34%) of employers think the four-day week will become a reality in the UK for most workers within the next 10 years, very few organisations have already introduced the four-day week or are planning to do so. Looking back, one in 10 (10%) organisations report they have reduced working hours without reducing pay for the whole or a significant part of their workforce over the last five years and of these, four in 10 (42%) did so as a result of the furlough scheme.

Among organisations that have moved to the four-day week, the main drivers were to increase employee wellbeing (36%), decreased demand for products or services (32%), or to help with recruitment and retention (30%). The biggest challenges for firms that had reduced hours were that new ways of working did not suit everybody in their organisation (32%), they were unable to achieve the same volume of work/outputs as before (30%) and that the task required someone to be present (26%).

Looking ahead, just 1% of organisations that have not reduced hours without reducing pay for staff to-date, plan to do so in the next three years. The main obstacle stopping more organisations from moving to a four-day week seems to be that most believe they would need to boost productivity first to compensate for the loss in working hours. Two-thirds (66%) of employers believe that a shift to a four-day week without reducing pay would depend on their organisation improving their efficiency and working smarter or firms boosting their adoption of technology (68%).

Of course, other key considerations affecting any shift to the four-day week are the circumstances and working preferences of employees. In all, 31% of workers say they would like to work fewer hours, but only 11% are willing to take a pay cut to achieve this. As the cost-of-living crisis continues to bite, and if a potential downturn results in rising unemployment, we are likely to see greater emphasis on the need to boost working hours rather than cutting them.

The positives of a four-day working week

However, despite the obstacles to the transition to the four-day working week, it is positive ambition and one that CIPD supports in principle. The rationale for the four-day week is a strong one, to give people more leisure time and improve their wellbeing while increasing their productivity to compensate.The current four-day working week trials are an attempt to plug the evidence gap, help pave the way and provide insights for other employers that would like to make the shift to the four-day week and make a stronger case for the benefits. CIPD will be looking to learn from insights generated from the trials to understand the sort of changes needed to people management and development practices which can overtime support the transition to a shorter more productive working week.

About the author

Ben Willmott, Head of Public Policy

Ben leads the CIPD’s Public Policy team, which works to inform and shape debate, government policy and legislation in order to enable higher performance at work and better pathways into work for those seeking employment. His particular research and policy areas of interest include employment relations, employee engagement and wellbeing, absence and stress management, and leadership and management capability.

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