‘It would be impossible to go back’: inside the UK’s four-day work week trial

Halfway through the trial of a shorter working week, most companies are looking at ways to make the change permanent, despite some initial issues

Companies involved in the UK’s four-day week trial plan to continue with a shorter work week indefinitely, despite initial logistical challenges and rota mix-ups.

Starting in July, some 70 organisations and 3,300 staff made the switch to the 100:80:100 model. This sees staff retain 100% of their pay for 80% of their time, in exchange for a commitment to maintain at least 100% productivity. It is part of the biggest four-day week trial in the world

Initial reports described the “chaotic” first week of the four-day trial, as businesses struggled to adapt to the new working pattern. But now, halfway through the six-month pilot, many of the businesses involved are optimistic that the shorter working arrangement could continue well beyond the end of the experiment.

Theo Krish, co-founder of audio company Sounds Like These, says that now his company has experienced the benefits of a healthier work/life balance “it would be pretty impossible to go back to normal”.

Although some coordination with clients was required, Krish says the switch to a four-day week has been “plain sailing” since and his team is better rested, happier and more productive.

Initial challenges

Not every participant has had a such a smooth transition. James Dean, CEO and co-founder of London-based digital mapping startup Sensat, admits that the company “did not get everything right at the beginning” and had to learn a few things along the way.

One of the biggest difficulties was determining how to streamline workloads, rather than having staff try to condense five days’ work into four. “We had to reframe thinking in the organisation so that teams understood it was about doing the tasks that really matter and make an impact, and cutting out the menial tasks,” Dean says.

The social element of work also took a hit as a result of the new working arrangement. Dean has tried to rectify this by introducing coffee bars, sofa areas and breakout rooms to the office to encourage collaboration. The company has also hosted additional social events to ensure “team bonds are not missed”.

Financial services firm Stellar Asset Management has faced similar challenges, with some individuals reportedly struggling to get their weekly work done with one fewer day. Chief operating officer Daryl Hine says: “We’re looking at how we can support those individual teams to improve effectiveness and productivity, so they can fully enjoy the benefits.”

Flexibility has been important in this regard. The business has been open about the fact there may be certain times when people will be required to attend a meeting or do some work on their extra day off during this adaptation period.

But there have also been numerous benefits. “We believe this is going to help staff morale and in terms of attracting and retaining staff. But it also means that the whole company is more focused on efficiency,” he says.

You have to change how you think about productivity from the ground up to make it a success. You have to be output focused, not time focused

Sensat has also noticed improvements to talent attraction and company efficiencies. “We are seeing our team more refreshed and inspired by the world around them,” he says, adding that there is an ambition for the four-day week to become the norm at Sensat beyond the end of the experiment. 

TRO Media, another trial participant, has reported a 44% improvement to performance, despite the 20% reduction in working time.

Gift site Bookishly also hopes to continue operating under a four-day week, despite initial issues around organising rotas and couriers for delivery of its products, in part due to its small size - it has 10 employees.

Company director Louise Verity says: “When we worked five days, people were able to book time off at the last minute with no issues and they didn’t need to consider who else was off at the same time because we could manage to cover what was needed.” 

The company has since implemented a shared calendar to organise time off and has encouraged colleagues to consider the business needs before booking holiday. But this is something Verity believes is a “very small concession” when balanced against the benefits of the four-day week.

Companies of all sizes seize the benefits

Even at larger organisations, the response to the four-day week trial has been a success. Gaming company Hutch is one of the largest businesses involved in the trial, with all 150 of its staff across studios in London, Dundee and Nova Scotia taking part. 

Its CEO and co-founder Shaun Rutland says that the switch to a four-day week was a “massive shift for the business and the team’s established routines” but, three months in, the experience has “reinforced our confidence in the process”. He adds: “We had to rewire our brains and our approach to deliver more work in less time, without creating a stressful and competitive environment.”

There were concerns that losing a working day would increase the stress levels experienced by staff. Rutland has been encouraging people to have an open dialogue about their workloads in weekly stand-ups and one-to-one meetings. 

“What we’ve found is that you have to change how you think about productivity from the ground up to make it a success. You have to be output focused, not time focused,” he says.

Although he claims the trial has been a positive experience, improving productivity and helping the team lead “better, fuller lives”, it is still “too early to say” whether the change will be made permanent.

Other companies have been surprised by the ease of the transition. Cosmetics company 5 Squirrels employs 14 people and has avoided any issues with the implementation of the four-day week.

“We honestly haven’t really had any challenges,” says Gary Conroy, co-founder and CEO. “We even had a Covid outbreak early on with different departments affected at different times, but we pulled together and got through it, even with one day less to get everything done.”

He describes the experience of the trial as “100% positive” and it has left people “questioning how we used to work and how much time was being wasted on non-productive tasks or distractions and needless meetings”.

We believe this is going to help staff morale and in terms of attracting and retaining staff. But it also means the whole company is more focused on efficiency

The only issue communications consultancy The Story Mob has faced to-date has been people logging in on their additional day off. Its communications director Karen Low says this has been due to FOMO (fear of missing out) and has happened despite the company setting clear boundaries around respecting other people’s time off.

“Many want to make sure the clients and the team feel supported. I think that’s a testament to the culture and the kind of people we employ,” she says.

Overall the majority of companies involved in the UK four-day week trial have found the experience to be a beneficial one, with several looking to make the shorter work week a permanent perk for staff. Stellar Asset Management’s Hine says: “The companies which are involved in this pilot are trailblazing. It’s a different way of working that requires a different mindset and hopefully it will get much more broadly adopted as we move forward.”