Will a four-day week actually work?

Experts warn expecting staff to maintain output in fewer hours could lead to higher stress levels, as 30 UK companies join research to pilot the move

More than 30 UK companies are moving to a four-day working week as part of an international study on how flexible working can improve productivity.

For the next six months employees in participating firms will work just 80 per cent of their usual hours. They will not receive any loss in pay, but will be expected to maintain the same levels of productivity as when they were working a full five-day week.

Part of the pilot will see researchers working with each participating organisation to measure the impact on productivity in the business and the wellbeing of its workers, as well as the impact on the environment and gender equality.

The scheme is being run by the 4 Day Week Campaign alongside think tank Autonomy and researchers at Cambridge University, Oxford University and Boston College, and is running in parallel with similar programmes in other countries.

Joe O’Connor, pilot programme manager at 4 Day Week Global, said this year would “herald in a bold new future of work”. 

“More and more businesses are moving to productivity-focused strategies to enable them to reduce worker hours without reducing pay,” he said. “The four-day week challenges the current model of work and helps companies move away from simply how long people are ‘at work’, to a sharper focus on the output being produced.”

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Numerous studies have shown that moving to a four-day week can boost productivity and workers’ wellbeing. In 2019, Microsoft trialled a shorter week with no loss of pay in its Japan office, giving its 2,300 workforce five Fridays off in a row. The company concluded at the end of the trial that the shortened weeks led to more efficient meetings, happier workers and boosted productivity by 40 per cent.

But not all firms have been so successful. The same year, the Wellcome Trust dropped its plans to roll out a four-day week because a consultation showed the reduction in hours would have been harder for some of its employees to manage than others, with back-office and support staff including IT, finance and HR finding the change more difficult than individuals with roles that allowed more flexibility how they worked.

While many campaigners have praised the four-day working week, some experts and businesses are worried it could increase stress levels. Rich Westman, CEO and founder of Kaido, said reducing hours while expecting the same levels of productivity could lead to “higher stress levels.” 

“Companies taking part in the trial will need to ensure they are continuing to introduce wellbeing initiatives into those four days, rather than relying on a three-day weekend being enough,” he said.

Westman added that loneliness levels at work were already at “record-high levels”, and that employers needed to ensure team connections were maintained even if there was one fewer day in the office.

Firms looking to implement a four-day week model also need to be careful about how they implement it, cautioned Alan Price, CEO of BrightHR, who notes that any changes to contractual terms and conditions can only be made with the agreement of employees. Once any changes have been consulted and accepted, it’s important to keep an eye on performance and morale, he said.

“As the world of work evolves, it’s understandable that many employers might want to take this next step in implementing working patterns but it is important to listen to feedback from employees, with open and honest discussion about any concerns,” said Price.