The 4-day working week. To employees this sounds like a dream, but to employers it can come with its fair share of complexities. Launched at the start of June, some UK companies will be trialing a 4-day working week for six months. Pilot schemes have already taken place in Spain, Ireland and Iceland. With the main focus being on the social, emotional and physical implications of this change, we will address some of the legal implications that could impact your business if you opt to change to a 4-day working week.
The 4-day week pilot scheme – what is it?
Essentially instead of working five days a week, participants will be dropping a day, whilst maintaining the same rate of pay and productivity levels.
Supporting the pilot, The 4 Day Week Campaign points out that the standard 9-5, 5 day working week is outdated and no longer fit for purpose. They also say that the concept of the weekend was invented a century ago and an update to working hours is long overdue.
Whilst this is the first time the 4-day working week is being trialed in the UK, the notion isn’t new. Back in the 1950s, President Nixon stated that this change was ‘inevitable’, and after the pandemic many employers and employees have reassessed their working patterns. The country of Iceland pivoted to (mostly) a national 4-day work week last year, as a reaction to the pandemic and around 85% of workers in Iceland are currently, or on the way to, working four days a week instead of five.
With most of the UK working population forced to work from home from May 2020, traditional working times were adapted to help accommodate caring for children, being at home 24/7 and working online. This proved that flexible working is realistic, and you don’t have to work the usual 9am-5pm Monday to Friday to be as productive as in the office, leading to many employees changing what they value in an employer.
There is a strong case for a 4-day working week, with many workers feeling ‘burnt out’, arguments for boosting tourism and smaller carbon footprints, being cited among the reasons and benefits.
A significant argument for reducing the working week is that it will increase productivity. In comparison to the majority of Europe, the UK works longer hours yet still has a lower productivity rate, for example the UK’s productivity rate is 15% below that of France, so maybe it is time for a change. Evidence from a trial run in Japan’s Microsoft office shows that when hours were reduced by 20% productivity increased by 40%. By cutting a day, experts are claiming that productivity will be increased and there will be fewer distractions.
Offering a 4-day working week is also said to attract and retain talent within an organisation. Post-pandemic, staff may look for an employer who is willing to offer flexible and hybrid working. It can be seen as an incentive to only be working for 4 days instead of 5 without having a reduction of pay and this will be a pull factor for many job seekers and will also prevent current employees from seeking employment elsewhere.
Covid-19 highlighted how important mental health is and reducing the working week will have positive impacts on people’s mental as well as physical health. Health and Safety Executive 2018 data reported that a quarter of all sick days taken were related to being overworked. By implementing this change, it is hoped that the extra day off will help relieve stress, rejuvenate people and give people more time to spend with their families and enjoying hobbies.
Whilst it might seem like a great idea at first glance, attention should be brought to the drawbacks which come with reducing the working week. For example, it will not fit every business model and sectors such as the education or healthcare industries would undoubtedly find it difficult to function on a 4-day week. These businesses which cannot offer a 4-day working week might lose staff to other sectors which could result in a shortage of workers and increased job vacancies.
Not all staff members will want to reduce their hours too and if this is the case, will companies be prepared to pay those working 5 days overtime to avoid disparity? What about part time staff? It is arguable that their pay should be increased to level them up with full time employees if the 4-day week is implemented. This could all lead to increased costs for the organisation. Alongside this, team management and interaction would be more difficult where days off are scattered through the week.
The UK already has one of the lowest productivity rates in Europe and this could easily worsen by switching to a 4-day working week. The idea that 5 days of work can be fitted into 4 days assumes that productivity will increase, but this is not guaranteed especially for employees who already struggle to get their allocated work done in 5 days. The change may create more work for employees working 5 days or on colleagues’ days off. It may also increase stress levels as staff may feel forced to work longer hours over 4 days in order to complete tasks.
The legal implications of a 4-day working week should be considered before implementing it into your organisation – it isn’t as simple as just staying home on a Friday.
Attention needs to be brought to what will happen with holiday entitlement. With a day being cut, would annual leave entitlement be reduced by 20% to reflect working 4 days? This would take full time workers with 20 days off, or even less if bank holidays are included within their usual 28 days’ leave. These changes would need to be addressed in employment contracts to become terms of employment.
It is also unclear what will happen with part-time staff. There are a few options which could be considered such as cutting their hours in line with full time workers’ hours but keeping their pay the same. Companies might also opt to increase their pay or adjust their annual leave, or a combination of the above options.
Workers who are self-employed or on zero-hour contracts may not benefit from a 4-day working week and wider policy changes would be needed to accommodate all types of workers. This is not one size fits all concept and crucial for organisations to discuss it with their employees to find a solution that suits everyone.
If productivity does decrease as a result of switching to 4 days, companies should put in place measures to minimise this risk of falling behind on work. This can be done in many ways such as reducing the amount of (unnecessary) meetings or the length of meetings and sharing the workload out. If employees are struggling to stay on track whilst working 5 days, then maybe an internal review is needed to see where the system is failing.
As the trial proceeds, it is important to bear in mind that if you’re thinking of making this switch, your experience will be different to others’ and it’s essential to find a solution that works best for your company. Whist it could be a gamechanger for the working culture in the UK, the future of the 4-day working week is by no means certain at this stage – we await the trial outcome with interest.