The last two years have seen a persistent change in the world of work. The pandemic has been the biggest homeworking experiment this country has ever seen and has resulted in employee and employer views shifting considerably. But just as the pandemic prompted a rethink in where and how we work, many are increasingly thinking about when we work too. 

This has led to an increased interest in the four-day working week – a catch-all term for a reduction in hours worked without a reduction in pay. Following some international examples, there is currently an ongoing series of trials across the UK, with the Scottish Government committed to funding its own trials early next year. The CIPD recently published our own Scottish report into the four-day working week, looking at both employee and employer perspectives. 

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.

 

Employee perspectives

We start with a look at Scottish working patterns. Just as with homeworking, it is tempting to see the issue through the prism of your own experiences. Working in a traditional 9-to-5, Monday to Friday pattern, it is straightforward to imagine simply dropping one day a week. And while most employees in Scotland work in this way, it is by no means universal. 

Just over a quarter (27%) of Scots already work four days a week or less. Conversely, around 11% of Scots work more than five days a week. But this is just looking at days, not the hours worked within those days. If we look at total hours worked, we find that on average Scots work 35.9 hours per week – just over a five-day week if we assume a seven-hour day with an hour for lunch. Many, however, work significantly more than that. 

Over a fifth work more than 42 hours per week (a six-day week) and over a tenth work more than 49 hours per week (a seven-day week). Furthermore, over 30% of Scots work at the weekend too, and many will work variable hours, so do not fit into the traditional Mon-Fri working pattern. Even without accounting for significant occupational/industry differences, implementing a four-day working week across the board is a challenging prospect.

In addition to working patterns, it is also crucial to recognise individual employee preferences. Our analysis of the ONS Labour Force Survey finds that the vast majority of Scots (63%) are happy with the hours they work. Around 30% would like to work fewer hours, but only 12% would accept a pay cut for this. That leaves 18% of Scots who are looking for fewer hours without a reduction in pay.

However, even this can change depending on economic circumstances. As the cost of living crisis starts to bite, it is likely we will see upwards pressure on working hours as employees seek to boost incomes. Indeed, even if productivity is boosted across Scottish companies (as it must) through investment in technology or better people management over time, it is unclear whether employees would prefer reduced hours over a pay rise.

Employer perspectives

Overall, we find a certain level of disconnect between what Scottish employers feel might happen and what they are actually planning to do. Around a third told us that they expect the four-day working week to become the norm for most employees across the UK in the next 10 years – leading to the positive headlines in some media. However, only 2% told us they planned to reduce hours without reducing pay in the next three years. Looking back, 13% of Scottish employers said they reduced hours on the last five years, but we know around half of them did so, as a result of the furlough scheme.

Despite their expectations, over half (56%) of employers said that a four-day working week could never happen in their organisation. The majority (63%) of employers believe they would need to improve efficiency and work smarter first before reducing hours without reducing pay. And this remains the key sticking point – the need to improve productivity by 25% to compensate for the loss in working hours. So far this remains largely unproven and, just like homeworking, is sure to differ considerably by industry. Concerningly, out of those UK employers who reduced hours in the past five years, nearly a third said they could not achieve the same volume of work/output as before.

Conclusions

The short answer to the question posed in the title of this piece would have to be “no, not yet”. The long answer, as ever, is a bit more complicated. 

First, there are some real challenges in how to implement the policy for those with atypical (for example, varying) working patterns. It is easier to see how a five-day week could become a four-day week for your typical 9-to-5 employee, but the statistics show that a large proportion of Scots work differently.

Second, individual employee preferences need to be kept in mind. We saw that only just under a fifth (18%) of all employees would like to work fewer hours without reduced pay. Indeed, the majority seem to be happy with the hours they work. Furthermore, the cost of living crisis may well push people into looking to work more hours or seek pay rises instead of reducing their hours.

Third, the employer answers seem to suggest that – at the moment anyway – they do not believe that reducing hours without reducing pay would boost productivity in and of itself. Nearly two-thirds think that improving efficiency and working smarter needs to come first and then hours could be reduced.

What is still lacking is clear evidence. That’s why the ongoing and planned trials in Scotland are so important. They can provide clear evidence on the impact on employee well-being and productivity across a range of sectors. And if that evidence is positive, we may eventually see attitudes and working patterns change too.

About the author

Marek Zemanik, Senior Public Policy Adviser for Scotland

Marek joined the CIPD in October 2019. He leads the CIPD’s public policy work in Scotland, focusing primarily on fair work, skills and productivity. Prior to joining the CIPD, Marek spent nearly a decade working at the Scottish Parliament as a political adviser responsible for policy-making across devolved areas of public policy.

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