What’s stopping the UK getting a four-day-work week?

Proponents of the shorter work week are looking to build on the success of the UK trial but wider change across the economy is likely to be some way off
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The momentum around the four-day-work week is gathering pace in the UK. 

Fresh from the positive results of the national pilot scheme – which saw 92% of participating companies keep the shorter weel, at least in the short term – its organiser, the 4 Day Week Campaign, has launched a national rollout programme aimed at encouraging more businesses to try the idea. The scheme aims to connect businesses that are interested in implementing a four-day week with experts and consultants to guide them through the transition.

Those taking part will also have access to online workshops on topics such as improving productivity and HR best practice, as well as troubleshooting events and “social engagement events”. Running for eight weeks from 20 April, the hope is that having a more formal scheme will encourage more companies to explore it as an option before.

Joe Ryle, the campaign’s director, claims that “hundreds” more companies are now talking about the four-day week and he hopes its rollout programme will help “build on the interest that has been generated by the trial”.

But there are still some major obstacles to overcome if the four-day week is to change the way business works across the economy.

Encouraging larger companies to adopt a four-day week

So far, most of the companies that have trialled the four-day-work week have been small companies. The largest company that took part in the UK test had 500 employees, while almost nine in 10 (88%) had 100 employees or fewer.

“There’s definitely still a case to be won,” Ryle admits. “At the moment, the biggest four-day-week employer in the UK has 500 employees, so it does need to be implemented at a bigger scale before others will be convinced.”

There are some signs larger firms are taking notice. Retailer Dunelm and grocery giant Sainsbury’s are some of the early adopters. Both companies plan to offer staff from certain teams the ability to work a flexible four-day week, although they will expect them to fulfil their current contracted hours.

Although this compressed hours version of a four-day week is not something that his campaign would advocate for (the campaign follows the 100:80:100 rule, 100% of the pay at 80% of the hours with 100% of business output), Ryle welcomes it as “a good start”. “It shows that pressure is building,” he adds. 

For him, the next step towards mass adoption requires a company from the FTSE 100 to get involved. Unilever has conducted an 18-month trial of a shorter working week in New Zealand and, buoyed by the positive initial results, has extended the pilot to its Australian offices. 

While this trial did run along the 100:80:100 principle, Unilever has only 80 employees in New Zealand and admits it needs to test how it works in “more complex” markets before rolling it out further.

When you’re talking about entire economies transforming, these changes take a long time

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, programme manager at 4 Day Week Global and author of the book Shorter, agrees that seeing a FTSE 100 or Fortune 500 firm make the switch would be great from a PR perspective. “Given that big companies tend to be late adopters – but important exemplars – for setting an industry standard, their role in creating change shouldn’t be ignored,” he adds.

However, he warns that such businesses often develop different subcultures and norms across departments, due to their size. This can mean people within an organisation often have different schedules and attitudes towards working hours, making change harder to implement.

“The first adopters of the four-day week tended to be places where everyone performs a similar role,” Soojung-Kim Pang says. “Implementing a four-day week in those companies is very different to implementing it in a hospital, for example, where you’ve got multiple professions and working schedules. This requires a lot of coordination to work out and we’re still learning how to make it happen.”

Being a four-day-week company in a five-day-week world

Beyond the size of the business, the sector it operates in can cause difficulties in introducing a four-day week. Ryle points to the public sector, manufacturing, construction, hospitality and retail as some examples.

Those in the hospitality and retail sectors are already facing challenges filling vacancies; ensuring they have sufficient staff to allow the transition to a four-day week may be difficult. Similarly, a four-day week may not be feasible for those already working unusual schedules, such as oil rig workers, while lawyers’ working hours are often at the mercy of the courts. Further trials from businesses within these sectors may be necessary before they feel confident in their ability to reduce staff’s working hours.

“When you’re talking about entire economies transforming and changing, this takes a long time,” Ryle acknowledges. “We’re not expecting the UK to be a four-day-week country by the end of this year.”

Knights Absorb, a health and safety specialist training organisation, was involved in the UK’s recent trial but decided to return to a five-day week on its completion. Despite seeing the positive impact a four-day week had on its employees, the business’s needs have required that people return to their previous working hours. 

“We’ve been planning for quite a while to pivot into a tech-led offering. To be able to do that, we need all hands on deck,” says managing director Steve van de Worp. 

For van de Worp this highlights another one of the barriers preventing wider adoption of the four-day week. While well-established organisations that have consistent strategic goals may find the transition possible, those that are undergoing a transformation or startups often need the additional time “to get the business to where it needs to be”. 

Even as the value of the pound goes up and down, the value of people’s time doesn’t

“If you’re one of the first businesses to make the switch in your sector, you risk making the business ever so slightly less competitive,” he says. “The only solution would be if everyone makes the change at the same time.”

Soojung-Kim admits that it can be “tough being a four day week company in a five day week world”. In his opinion, the most effective way to create a four-day-week world would be to have government involvement in order to set working hours in the public and private sectors and to change school times.

The economic barriers to a four-day week

The current economic downturn may also deter businesses from making such a fundamental change to their working arrangements. “We know from history that businesses don’t like making big changes in times of uncertainty,” says Ryle, who remains “very aware that the current financial climate does make things difficult”.

The task for four-day week campaigners will be to persuade companies that the long-term benefits of a shorter work week outweigh any risks. Despite the challenges, Soojung-Kim believes “there are vanishingly few industries in which a four-day week is not feasible and I don’t think there are any for which it is not ultimately desirable”.

During times of economic uncertainty, the initial instincts of many business leaders will be to focus on productivity, output and profitability. But Soojung-Kim hopes that they will see the benefits a four-day week can bring, in terms of healthier workplaces, happier employees, improved sustainability and return on investment, and realise that it’s worth the low cost of implementation.

He adds: “There are always going to be people who read Charles Dickens and cheered for the people running the workhouse but I have been really struck by how interest in the four-day week has not flagged despite the shadow of recession.

“Even as the value of the pound goes up and down, the value of people’s time doesn’t.”