Why the traditional working week’s days could be numbered

Trials of the four-day week are proliferating as employers realise that offering flexibility is a key recruitment and retention tool. Could this increasingly popular working pattern ever become the norm?

“Eight hours’ labour, eight hours’ recreation, eight hours’ rest.” 

This slogan was coined by the cotton magnate and philanthropist Robert Owen during the industrial revolution in 1817. At the time, most of his fellow factory owners were subjecting their workers to brutal conditions with impunity, paying them a pittance to work more than 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

Owen’s campaign to give workers basic legal protections started the painfully slow move towards the five-day working week of 40 hours that’s become the standard in the West. But many people today are dreaming of working to a new rhythm – the four-day week – and enjoying the extra freedoms it promises. For some, it has already become a reality.

Since June, 70 employers in the UK have been trialling a four-day week in a six-month pilot. The programme is run by a partnership led by 4 Day Week Global, a not-for-profit coalition focused on workplace wellbeing. Workers are paid the same salary, but they are expected to be more productive in return.

How do some of the 3,300 participating employees rate the arrangement so far? Lauren McCloud, head of education policy at the Royal Society of Biology, had nothing but praise in July when she tweeted: “Absolutely loving the #4DayWeek. Life admin done on a Friday morning, less exhausted by work and a whole weekend still ahead. Using #MyExtraDay to spend more time with family and friends, watch more sports and do more open-water swims.”

Jessica Thomas, a designer at Bookishly, a retailer of gifts for bibliophiles, is another fan. The extra free day has given her more time to spend on hobbies such as reading and creating art. Like McCloud, she reports that it’s also allowed her to “forge stronger connections” with loved ones. 

“That’s been the main thing for me,” Thomas says. “People have far more time for each other when they have more time for themselves.”

Ludmila Praslova, professor of organisational psychology at the Vanguard University of Southern California, believes that the four-day week could have numerous beneficial socioeconomic effects if it were to become the standard model.

“We could generally predict a healthier society, because people would be spending more time with each other, which reduces loneliness and stress-related disease,” she says.

Mass uptake of the four-day week would have a positive impact on everyone’s wellbeing and, eventually, their productivity, Praslova adds. “If we’re all allowed to function at our most optimal mental performance, that will result in a more creative, innovative and caring society. People are going to be kinder to each other.” 

India Burgess is head of advocacy at Autonomy, a not-for-profit research group that’s part of the partnership running the 4 Day Week Global pilot. The wider adoption of a four-day week clearly wouldn’t solve all of society’s ills, she says, but it could help to lower the risk of stress-related burnout, say, and ease the pressure on working parents with respect to childcare provision.

“That would reduce pressure on mental health services,” Burgess says. “It’s also been forecast to be economically beneficial: people would be more likely to go out and spend, meaning that more money would be circulating.”

These benefits won’t necessarily come at a cost to employers. A trial of a shorter working week in Iceland in 2015-19 found that people’s productivity either stayed constant or improved when their hours were reduced.

People have far more time for each other when they have more time for themselves

While there was interest in the concept of shorter working weeks before the pandemic, it was “the perfect storm”, Praslova says, in prompting everyone to think more about work/life balance. If the Covid lockdowns hadn’t obliged thousands of British employers to ask their staff to work at home, hybrid working simply wouldn’t be as prevalent as it is today. 

“That change was overdue,” she says. “The technology for working from home has been there for years. Organisations just hadn’t been willing to try it.”

Despite a general willingness among employers to allow more flexible working since 2020, “some organisations are probably still living in this old mentality”, according to Praslova. “The idea of squeezing as much as possible out people just doesn’t work – that’s been shown over and over again. Putting in more time does little for our peak performance, which is really what matters in most of our jobs. We can function at our maximum level for only a few hours each day.”

A recent survey of nearly 2,000 UK office workers by Vouchercloud confirms her point. It found that the average respondent felt truly productive for two hours and 53 minutes of an eight-hour day.

Moving to a four-day week could also have a positive effect on staff retention, according to Ashley Whillans, assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. 

“My research shows that one of the top three predictors of employee engagement is time-affluence – the extent to which people feel that their employers care about protecting their time,” she says. “The results suggest that, if the four-day week helps employees to feel more time-affluent and in control of their time, the initiative could be linked to lower intentions to quit.”

A survey of 2,000 UK workers published by recruitment website Reed.co.uk in September 2021 found that 71% of respondents were either in search of a new employer or open to new opportunities. They ranked the offer of more flexible hours second only to a pay rise as a reason to stay put.

But Whillans points out that the four-day week might not be the answer to the so-called great resignation

“Many such initiatives are happening in the tech industry and other fields that rely on knowledge workers,” she reports. “The great resignation is localised in sectors that have been most affected by Covid-19, such as hospitality, retail and manufacturing. Unless these sectors adopt the four-day week as well, it’s unlikely to produce big shifts in the job market.”

While Burgess acknowledges that four-day-week trials in white-collar sectors have attracted the most publicity so far, she stresses that there is interest among manufacturers and retailers too. 

A flexible model would look “slightly different, but it’s definitely implementable in those settings”, she says. Indeed, a brewery, a chip shop and a car-parts retailer are among the businesses participating in the 4 Day Week Global trial.

As similar experiments are conducted around the globe, only time will tell whether the four-day week can become the norm. But it’s hard to envisage who wouldn’t want a future where people are more time-affluent, yet just as productive (if not more so), in a healthier, kinder and more cohesive society.