Could a four-day working week be on the horizon?

Christie Jamieson looks at what recent trials of a shortened working week might mean in future for UK businesses and employees

Could a four-day working week be on the horizon?

In September 2021, the UK government published its consultation on flexible working, which contained proposals to reform flexible working regulations. It seems the suggested reforms are welcomed by many employees, with an Ernst & Young study suggesting that 47 per cent of workers would consider changing jobs if flexible working was not an option.


However, some countries have taken the move towards flexible working one step further by introducing a four-day working week. Iceland was the first country to trial this, whereby workers are paid the same amount for fewer hours. The trials in Iceland, which involved a variety of workplaces including pre-schools, offices and hospitals, resulted in productivity remaining the same or improving in most workplaces. 

In Japan, Microsoft trialled a four-day working week and found that productivity increased by 40 per cent. Most recently, Scotland announced plans to trial the four-day working week.  Crucially, such working patterns would not be classed as part-time or result in a reduced salary: full-time workers would work fewer hours (four days a week) for the same salary. Of course, absent any legislation to the contrary, it would be up to the organisations themselves whether they wanted to follow the format of the trials (and reduce hours) or simply condense the usual weekly hours into four days instead of five. However, there is an argument that such an approach would not be as effective in reaping some of the benefits as employees may end up working long hours over the four days.

Benefits and drawbacks

Trials have indicated an increase in productivity with a four-day working week. Workers are given more time to relax away from work and are less likely to suffer from burnout as a result. The benefits of this are arguably twofold: not only are workers likely to be more focused and productive at work but employment-related tribunal claims for stress-related illnesses are also likely to decrease.

A four-day working week may also be better for the environment as workers would spend less time commuting and large office buildings would not be in as much use. Of course, this problem has become less prevalent in the last couple of years with the rise in remote working especially for office staff, but office-working is likely to return at some point and, even if it does not, a four-day working week might still mean a decrease in electricity consumption.

Inevitably there are also potential drawbacks to the four-day working week structure. One being that, due to workload, employees may feel they need to work the same 40-hour week in four days instead of five. Long working days could negatively impact employees' stress levels and mental health. Furthermore, it may take a while for customers to adapt to employees' new working patterns, meaning customer satisfaction could decline in the short-term if services are not being provided as quickly or as on demand as usual.

Practicality

A four-day working week will not be suitable for every business and the practicality of introducing such an arrangement will depend on several factors, including the nature of the business, existing working patterns and customer requirements. 

However, employers should consider:

if business needs could still be met; 

who they should consult within the business; and 

how the change would be implemented (eg, changes to employment contracts and rotas and, perhaps, to business hours). 

The trials in Iceland involved a mix of office-based work (using a nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday working pattern) as well as shift work to demonstrate that a four-day working week can be used beyond traditional office-based work. Any implementation of a shorter working week will need to be tailored to the organisation in question so the impact of any drawbacks can be mitigated. For example, if business needs mean that services must be available Monday to Friday, an employer would need to arrange rotas so employees take their extra day off on different days – which is also likely to require additional employees.

Flexible working requests

A four-day working week can already be requested by way of a flexible working request. This is a statutory right for employees with at least 26 weeks' continuous service. However, it is only a right to request and, currently, the employee would often be expected to accept a reduced salary as compressed hours may not match the business's requirements. Furthermore, the request process can be lengthy, which may deter some employees. 

Conclusion

It is important that employers keep changes to modern working models under review. Many have done this well through implementing mass remote working, but requests for further changes are increasing. 

Employers should consider whether implementing a four-day week would be possible for their organisation even before receiving requests and, further, whether it would be beneficial to the workforce and the business. There is compelling evidence that a four-day working week can be beneficial for productivity and employees' wellbeing. Any potential drawbacks can often be mitigated, if not eradicated, through tailoring the arrangements. 

It remains to be seen how the four-day working week trials in Scotland will play out but, if they follow their international counterparts, there may be compelling evidence to support reforms to the traditional nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday working week.

Christie Jamieson is an associate at Dentons