Implementing a four-day working week could save UK businesses a combined £104 billion annually, according to new research from Henley Business School which suggests compressed weeks lead to increased productivity and improved physical and mental wellbeing.
Half (50 per cent) of the 505 UK business leaders surveyed in the white paper Four Better or Four Worse said they had already enabled a four-day working week for either some or all their staff and reported they were reaping the rewards of flexibility.
Almost two-thirds (64 per cent) of employers reported an increase in productivity, as well as an improvement in the quality of work being produced after implementing flexible working policies, including the option of a four-day work week.
The researchers said part of the improved productivity could be linked to the reduction in staff sickness in these firms: three in five (62 per cent) businesses who offered the four-day week said sickness absence was reduced.
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Henley suggested total savings from these measures could number £104 billion annually across all UK business, equivalent to around 2 per cent of turnover at each individual business.
But James Walker, director of research at Henley Business School and co-author of the report, said some employers viewed the benefits of a four-day work week as either unnecessary or not substantial enough to warrant investigation.
“There is this fear of how are we going to interrelate with our customers if we are not in the office at certain times,” Walker said. “And related to that particular dilemma is the notion of complexity: how do we organise ourselves in our firms when some people are going to be around sometimes and others at other times?”
A majority (82 per cent) of businesses not offering a four-day week believed ensuring employees were available to the customer outweighed the need for flexible working practices. And almost three-quarters (73 per cent) said a four-day week would be “too complicated to manage”.
Part of the challenge, according to the research, came from a lack of clarity as to what a four-day week means for businesses and who chooses which day an employee doesn’t need to work – the employer or the employee. Some businesses thought of it as a reduction in hours, whereas others saw it as compressing the same number of hours into a shorter time frame.
Dr Rita Fontinha, co-author of the report and lecturer in strategic HR management at Henley Business School, said there were conflicting pressures between working flexibly and working less, but the ideal of flexibility “doesn’t necessarily lead to fewer hours”.
“A lot of overtime isn’t accounted for in many of our jobs because people are increasingly assessed by objectives,” Fontinha said. “With a four-day week, we need to make sure people aren’t working during their time off.
While many businesses were worried about implementing such working patterns, Henley said the four-day week trend showed no sign of slowing down. More than a third (34 per cent) of business leaders and 46 per cent of those in larger businesses said making the switch would be important for future business success, so many were likely to trial a four-day week in the coming years.
Speaking at a launch event for the report, Jo Fairley, co-founder of Green & Black’s Chocolate, said that if employers made their expectations clear and set deadlines while allowing individuals to manage their own time, they would deliver.
“If you allow them to complete those tasks during their own timeframe, then I think you would find that people are much more focused at their desks to get the job done,” Fairley said. “And by working this way, I’ve never been let down by people before.”
The Henley researchers also found that implementing a four-day week would have a positive impact on recruitment. Of the businesses already implementing it, almost two-thirds (63 per cent) said flexible working helped them attract and retain the right talent by demonstrating their “forward thinking” approach to work. Notably, the researchers said it almost equally attracted older talent (70 per cent) as well as younger workers (64 per cent) to a business.