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Will 2022 be the year the four-day work week takes off?

With a new pilot programme launching in the UK later this year, the prospect of a shorter working week seems closer than ever before

Businesses are well versed in the potential benefits a four-day week presents. From greater productivity to improved work/life balance and reduced burnout, the body of evidence suggests a shorter work week could have benefits for both employees and employers.

But despite a large-scale trial in Iceland, the wider adoption of a four-day week has so far been slow. So what will it take to turn the four-day week from a utopic vision into a business reality?

Thinktank Autonomy and the 4 Day Week Campaign hope that a new pilot programme will provide some of the answers. Run in conjunction with researchers from the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Boston College, the six-month trial will follow the progress of roughly 30 companies in introducing a four-day week.

Starting in June, participating businesses will reduce their workers’ hours following the principles of the 100:80:100 model, which sees staff retain 100% of their pay for 80% of the time, in exchange for a commitment to maintain at least 100% productivity. 

Brendan Burchell, professor in the Social Sciences at Cambridge University, says: “With the social and environmental benefits of the shorter working week becoming clearer, grassroots support more widespread, and technology available to maintain productivity, the time has come for more organisations to take the leap and unravel the practicalities.” 

Interest in the scheme has been overwhelming, with hundreds of businesses registering to join the pilot programme, according to 4 Day Week Campaign director Joe Ryle. He says: “It’s been a very positive response and I think it goes to show that the UK is ready for a four-day week.”

As we move out of this pandemic, everyone is thinking about ways of building back better. One way of doing that is creating a better world of work with an improved work/life balance. 

The trial aims to demonstrate that a four-day week can produce positive results for employees, employers and the environment. Researchers will be measuring the impact a switch to a shorter week has on productivity, wellbeing, gender equality and environmental impact over the six-month period. 

Similar trials are also taking place in Scotland, Ireland and Spain. Ryle says: “As we move out of this pandemic, everyone is thinking about ways of building back better. One way of doing that is creating a better world of work with an improved work/life balance.”

The popularity of the concept is also gaining ground. A 2021 poll from Savanta ComRes found that 60% of UK adults support the idea of a four-day week. This rose to 68% among those aged 18 to 34.

“The policy is more popular than ever before in the UK,” adds Ryle, “so there is clearly an enthusiasm here for it. In the longer term, we’d like to see the entire economy move to a four-day week. Hopefully, these companies are going to be the pioneers to show the rest of us that it can be done.”

Why Atom Bank moved to a four-day week

Among the businesses to have already moved to a four-day week is Atom Bank, which became the largest employer in the UK to introduce such a policy in November. Under the change, all 430 of its staff have been offered a reduction in working hours with no change in pay.

This means employees now work 34 hours over four days and can take Monday or Friday off. Previously, they worked 37.5 hours across the week.

Explaining the decision to move to a four-day week, the bank’s chief people officer Anne-Marie Lister says: “Working from home has been great in some respects but we’ve found people are also working longer hours and missing out on some of the down time they would usually have. When analysing our working practices, we thought introducing a four-day week could have a really positive impact for our people and the business.” 

Since introducing reduced working hours, Atom Bank has experienced a 500% increase in job applications. Although it remains too early in the process to draw firm conclusions, early signs of the trial’s impact are encouraging.

But not all organisations are convinced a four-day week is the way forward. Andrew Duncan, UK CEO of Infosys Consulting, says: “Without clear guidelines in place, the four-day work week risks creating an ‘always on’ working culture, leaving talent feeling like they need to be available every hour of the day to get ahead – the opposite of what was intended.”

However, Lister believes such comments miss the point. She says: “Most organisations, if not all, could work with a four-day week. You just need to put time into the planning and challenge your current working practices. I think some people are afraid to look at what’s possible in that respect.”

With more trials and a mounting body of evidence, perhaps 2022 will finally be the year that more organisations are convinced of the benefits of a shorter working week.

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