• Tar Tumber
  • 19 November 2018

The four-day working week – a step closer?

The four-day working week concept has been bandied around a lot in the last few weeks, with regular headlines of companies transitioning from traditional 9-5 Monday to Friday working, to four-day weeks for their staff.  To some, this may idea may cause concern – how can a business deliver all it needs to, if its staff only work 80% of their hours?

Rewind back to 1879, when the earliest use of the word ‘weekend’ was recorded in an English magazine called Notes and Queries. A ‘weekend’ was when a worker took a half-day on Saturday and all of Sunday to recuperate. It wasn’t until the turn of the century that a weekend consisted of two full days. 

Back to 2018, not much has changed since then.  Most British people work fixed hours five days a week.  We work some of the longest hours in Europe, including unpaid overtime; yet the UK’s productivity falls way short compared to our European counterparts who work fewer hours and proactively manage their work–life balance. France has created legislation allowing workers the ‘right to disconnect’, meaning they cannot be contacted outside of work.  Several German employers have taken measures to improve this balance, with Volkswagen shutting off Blackberry servers at the end of the workday to limit email access. Across the globe, other countries are adopting similar practices and cite the benefits of doing so.

In the UK, we find more than half a million workers being signed off with work related stress/illness – whilst not wholly attributed to working hours, this undoubtedly has a significant impact on the 12.5 million days lost due to absence.  The idea that technology would help reduce working hours has also proved false in most instances, with many workers feeling the pressure to log on during their commute, whilst on holiday, and even when off sick. 

Aligned to the above, there is plenty of evidence to suggest the five-day working week is not efficient and a shorter week could boost health, productivity and morale amongst workers.

So how does a four-day week work?  And is it for everyone?

Different companies adopt different approaches:

  • Everyone works the same number of hours but over four (longer) days with no change in pay or benefits. Workers might all have the same day off (if business cover is not required on the fifth day) or have to stagger the days off, so that cover remains throughout the working period. This approach tends to be used in service sector organisations where clients need access to staff through the working week.
  • Staff work four days rather than five (reduced hours) but with no reduction in pay on the basis they work more efficiently during those four days. This means efficient meetings; team bonding in set places (i.e. over lunch rather than impromptu chats by the water cooler); and a slight change in mindset to work smarter, not harder.

Where the approach has been adopted, companies have cited a boost in morale, retention and productivity.  Client satisfaction has not dipped, and employee satisfaction has rocketed! 

Specifically, there is a big impact on women who generally undertake the majority of the unpaid caring and domestic responsibilities.  Having a shorter week as the ‘norm’ would help to shape attitudes about gender roles and re-label ‘part time’ work as the new ‘full time’ work, enabling more opportunities for women back in the workplace.

Sounds great, but how would you achieve this?  If this was viable from a client/customer/output perspective, you would then need to review your staff contracts and policies to understand requirements relating to consultation, holidays entitlements, salary changes etc.  You would also need to consider if any of your proposed changes could be deemed discriminatory against any group of your staff.  If you had longer days, would this impact on working mums more, because they could no longer leave in time to collect their children from school?  Would there be any impact on disabled staff, or those with strong religious views?  To make any changes, consultation would need to be undertaken and then confirmed.

Second question: could this work for every business?  Unlikely – a business operating on 24-7 rotating shifts would struggle. Retail, facilities management and hospitality would certainly fall under this bracket.  Likewise, healthcare providers and the NHS would struggle to move to a four-day week, when resources already seem to be at breaking point.  In these instances, more staff would need to be recruited to meet demand.

However, something needs to happen – employee engagement, productivity and health are not going to improve themselves!  So, will we all have four-day weeks soon? Like the two-day weekend, it will happen gradually, but I don’t expect it by 2019!

If your business is considering a change in working or staff practices, please contact the team at Workplace Law to discuss how we can support you to achieve this.