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UK employers warm to the idea of a four-day working week

A new survey suggests that almost two-thirds of British business leaders favour a shortened week, with many respondents agreeing that its introduction could significantly improve the country's productivity
Change To A Four Day Week Economy

Nearly two-thirds (64%) of businesses in the UK would back the introduction of a four-day working week, according to a survey seen exclusively by Raconteur.

The YouGov poll of 1,028 corporate decision-makers reveals that 34% strongly support the idea, while 30% are somewhat supportive of it. Only 15% strongly oppose it.

These findings follow the completion of a UK-wide trial of the four-day week in which 61 organisations reduced their employees’ working hours by 20%, with no loss in pay. All but five of these enterprises have chosen to retain the arrangement.

Although most firms participating in the pilot were small (two-thirds had 25 employees or fewer), the survey suggests that the leaders of larger companies are even more open to the idea. More than three-quarters (76%) of respondents at businesses employing 250-plus people told YouGov that they favoured a shorter week, with only 20% registering their opposition.

Sainsbury’s, Dunelm and Atom Bank are among some of the large UK employers experimenting with a four-day week. But Sainsbury’s and Dunelm employees are still expected to put in the same number of hours as they were working before under a five-day week.

Commenting on the findings Atom Bank Chief People Officer Anne-Marie Lister says that larger businesses generally have greater resources, which “make it easier to cover key business activities to compensate for the reduced work hours”. “However, set against this is the more complicated and bureaucratic processes larger companies often have in place, which often makes decision making slower,” she adds.

At medium-sized businesses (those employing between 50 to 249 people), 64% of the leaders surveyed like the idea of introducing a four-day week in the UK. For leaders of small and micro-businesses, the equivalent figure is 53%.

Julian Birkinshaw, professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at London Business School, attributes their relative lack of enthusiasm to the fact that small firms are often owner-managed. Their bosses are therefore more likely to have a direct stake in the success of the business. 

“They probably worry that a four-day week would reduce the amount of work their employees do, resulting in a decline in output and, ultimately, profit,” he says. “In larger companies, decision-makers don’t incur the same financial penalty if the business makes less profit.”

Birkinshaw adds that the greater public profile of larger businesses means that they’re more likely to be concerned about matters of corporate social responsibility. They may therefore be more willing to experiment with an innovative work model with a view to improving employee engagement.

Practical implementation problems

Capacity limitations would also make it relatively hard for smaller firms to adopt a four-day week, notes Dr Mansoor Soomro, senior lecturer in sustainability and international business at Teesside University International Business School. 

“Smaller businesses have more limited resources, particularly in terms of human capital,” he says. “They would therefore find it more difficult to rearrange shift patterns, say.” 

Jo Sutherland, managing director of PR agency Magenta Associates, has already experimented with a four-day week at the company, which employs 12 people. She has since concluded that such an arrangement is unsuitable for the business. 

During the trial period, it soon became clear that the model “risked jeopardising our client experience and financial performance”, Sutherland says. As a compromise, the firm runs a half-day policy on Fridays, but directors and account leads must remain available to respond in an emergency.

One of the factors behind the survey respondents’ broad support for introducing a four-day week is the belief that it could make the UK more productive, with 41% agreeing that it would boost the economy.

During the pilot scheme, participating businesses’ revenues increased by an average of 1.4% over the trial period and were up 35% on the previous year. Switching to a UK-wide four-day week could also boost consumer spending and even lead to a reduction in healthcare expenditure, as the prevalence of stress-related health problems diminishes, Soomro suggests.

Despite the high level of support for the change among business leaders, there may be a caveat. A recent survey of 12,000 employers and employees by recruitment specialist Hays has found that a third of employers would be more willing to adopt a shorter working week if their staff were to spend all of that time together in the office.

Many businesses are still finding it hard to persuade staff to return to working at HQ more often after they learnt during the Covid crisis that they could work effectively at home for much of their time. The findings suggest that adopting a four-day week could be one solution.