We can all be thankful we weren’t around during the Industrial Revolution. Not only was the Wi-Fi rubbish, but the working week was unbelievably gruelling. It wasn’t uncommon for employees to work six-day weeks, for 70 hours or more.
One of the great leaps toward the five-day working week came about in 1926 thanks to Gerald Ford, who mandated that his employees should work no more than five eight-hour shifts on the production line. At the time it was felt to be a controversial move – what might even be described as ‘woke’ now!
Following the Great Depression, the 40-hour work week became the norm in the United States and beyond; the government saw it as a way to address an unemployment crisis by spreading work among more people. Now, post-pandemic, we’ve seen hybrid working become normalised - but are there more ambitious changes afoot? More and more organisations are looking at the prospect of introducing a four-day week.
An act of madness?
Instinctively, it sounds like madness – an act of self-harm in the midst of an economic crisis and recession. Cutting working hours, and therefore seemingly productivity, is utterly counterintuitive.
Except that, so far at least, the data does not seem to bear this out.
Between 2015 and 2019, the Icelandic government conducted experiments into the four-day working week saw 3,000 workers reduce their working hours from 40-per-week to 35 or 36, while staying on the same pay.
Overall output did not dip in most workplaces, and in some it improved. Reykjavik’s department of accountancy, for example, recorded a 6.5% increase in the number of invoices it processed during the trial compared with the same period a year before. Workers reported feeling less stressed and healthier. Men even started doing a bigger share of the household chores. The trials encouraged trade unions to push for shorter working hours, and employers responded swiftly. Since the trials took place 86% of Iceland’s workers have either moved to shorter hours or gained the right to do so.
Microsoft Japan also trialled a four-day week, and saw a 40% jump in productivity gains and a rise in employee happiness.
And a similar story has begun to emerge in the UK. At the end of 2020, Henley Business School surveyed 505 business leaders and more than 2,000 employees in the UK who had adopted a four-day week. Their findings were striking:
⅔ of businesses reported improvements in staff productivity
78% said staff were happier
70% said staff were less stressed
63% said a four-day working week helped them to attract and retain workers
Less is more
But how can this be? How is it that spending less time working can yield greater productivity?
First, and most obviously, employees who are only working four-day weeks are likely to have higher motivation, better morale, more energy, and greater focus, with less likelihood of burnout.
But also, there is often a lot of fat to be trimmed from the working day. Anyone who’s worked in an office job will tell you that there is a lot of wasted time: Pointless meetings that meander on forever; conversations about Love Island; hours spent making those vital adjustments to your Fantasy Football team. A global survey found that 78 percent of workers felt their job could be done in less than 7 hours per day, and almost half felt they needed 5 hours per day or less.
When you give a workforce the opportunity to squeeze their work into fewer days, they rise to the occasion.
When New Zealand company Perpetual Guardian trialled the four-day pattern, they found workers’ use of non-business related websites fell 35%. Give your workforce a goal to work towards – an extra day a week to themselves, and they’ll respond positively and productively.
Workers are also best placed to advise on how to enhance efficiency. Talking on BuddyBoost’s That Wellbeing @ Work Show podcast, Charlotte Lockhart, Managing Director of the 4 Day week global campaign, explains: “You get employees to help with the solution. People will be motivated to find all the little nuances within their job as an individual, within their teams and within the organisation as a whole, that they'll find ways to help you increase productivity, because they all want to go home and spend time with their children or have time for yoga or have time to educate themselves, or just to binge-watch Netflix. When you empower them to find the ways to do it better, then they find all sorts of things.”
Among the tips Lockhart suggests are:
Cut back on meetings
Only meetings with an agenda
Ask yourself if an email could do the job of a meeting
Furthermore, businesses trialling four-day weeks have reported a dramatic reduction in sick leave. Of those taking part in the Henley Business School survey, 62% reported that staff were taking fewer days off ill. Lorraine Gray, the chief executive of Pursuit Marketing, a call centre business in Glasgow with clients including the NHS and Google, has 350 members of staff who work only Monday to Thursday.
She said call centres often suffered from “Monday-itis” – workers calling in sick to get a long weekend. After switching to the four-day week, sickness dropped to almost zero. They also found that many sick days were taken by staff only needing a couple of hours off for an appointment, but with the Friday now available for “personal admin” that had largely stopped.
Further benefits of the four-day week
There are further incidental benefits to the four-day week that should not be overlooked.
A study by the environmental organisation Platform London and the 4 Day Week campaign found that by simply working one day less, carbon emissions could fall by up to 127m tonnes per year, the equivalent of taking all private cars off the road.
Meanwhile, additional leisure time would also give people the opportunity to bolster local economies by having more time to spend locally – this could be the lifeline that many businesses in the hospitality sector need during these tough times. And, in the teeth of a cost-of-living crisis, a four-day week would save parents thousands of pounds a year in childcare and commuting costs. According to the think tank Autonomy, someone with a child under two would save £1,440 in childcare and £340 from commuting on average across a year if they did not have to travel to work one day a week.
And, turning once more to the Henley Business School survey, 40% of employees used the extra day off to develop professional skills, while 25% said they used the extra day to volunteer in their local community.
And an extra day off without the pressures of a working day allows for more time doing physical exercise. This is important because a 2021 study showed nearly 30% of UK adults were considered to be inactive, doing less than 30 minutes of exercise on average per week. Regular physical activity improves both your overall health and fitness and quality of life, reducing the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, various types of cancer, anxiety, depression and dementia.
Change is coming
The voices calling for a four-day week are growing louder, their argument more compelling. And things do seem to be changing. In May of this year, the UK launched its biggest ever trial of the four-day week, using the 100-80-100 model: Workers are paid 100% of their wages for only working 80% of the time whilst providing 100% productivity.
From fish-and-chip shops to big corporations, more than 3,300 workers are taking part. Similar trials are being undertaken in Scotland, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada.
And, while the final results of the UK’s six-month study are not yet in, the initial signs are hugely promising, with 86% of employers stating they are likely to continue with a four-day week once the trial comes to an end.
Sharon Platts, chief people officer at Outcomes First Group, which has 1,000 staff and is the largest organisation taking part in the UK trial, says the four-day week pilot has been “transformational” for the company. “We’ve been delighted to see productivity and output increase and have also been able to make it work in our education and care services, which we thought would be far more challenging,” she says. “While it’s still early days, our confidence in continuing beyond the trial is growing and the impact on colleague wellbeing has been palpable.”
Change is coming, and we’ll all be better off for it. So what would Henry Ford, the original architect of the eight-hour day in the five-day week, think of it all? It seems he would have approved. “The five-day week is not the ultimate, and neither is the eight-hour day,” he opined in 1926. It may have taken us almost a hundred years, but it seems we’re finally catching up with his working ideal.
If you’d like to hear more about the 4 day week and how it could work for your business, check out our podcast with Charlotte Lockhart here.
Image by aleksandarlittlewolf on Freepik.