A four-day week might be more myth than reality

Harriet Shurville explores what will need to happen among UK businesses in order to make a shorter working week successful in the long term

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The UK recently announced that it is piloting a four-day work week come June 2022 as an experiment to determine if shorter work weeks can help attract and retain staff. A welcomed and progressive development. 

The pandemic has changed the way a lot of us work. Before March 2020, most companies required their employees to go into the office five days a week. Now, five days in the office seems like an unthinkable distant memory as we flex between the office and our own homes.

In fact, many workers have embraced this new way of working post-pandemic and are now only considering opportunities that give them a better work-life balance. There is certainly a shift in the relationship many of us have with work, and these behaviours have the potential to unravel the traditional patterns we’ve been used to. 

So, could the move to a four-day week be the next evolution in the way we work, or is it an idealised myth with no place in reality?

From my perspective, a four-day week sounds like a wonderful change and one I’d love to see become a reality, but one that doesn’t always align with the current structures, practices and attitudes of many businesses.

It’s a very progressive concept but will only work if we all commit to changing towards this working pattern. Without everyone working in this way, it would be difficult for businesses that rely on client relationships because of the expectation to be there whenever they need us. 

Of course, until there is a UK-wide change, there are ways and means to make businesses more flexible. We’ve seen many businesses, including Iris, introduce core hours to allow people to flex their start and end times to work flexibly around family and other commitments. 

But being flexible isn’t just a ‘nice to have’: it’s an expectation from employees. In a recent study by Kellog and Indeed, 93 per cent of people say they would like to work for an employer that supports and encourages a greater work-life balance. So even if a four-day week remains a far-off, utopian idea, businesses functioning in a five-day week world must be introducing robust policies to accommodate flexibility and help employees navigate the pressures of work and family life. Without them, we risk losing talent who will set off for greener, more flexible pastures. 

Four-day week = equality for all?

Right now there is huge pressure for those in the trials to make this work for everyone and prove pessimists wrong, as it provides better equality. For parents – women in particular – it could prove to be a societal equaliser as they are more likely to work four-day weeks in order to have that extra day to take on caring responsibilities. By dropping a day it could equal the playing field. 

In fact, a report by Women’s Budget Group argued that moving to a shorter working week could help to close the gender pay gap. Its research found that during the first phase of the pandemic, men increased the time they spent on unpaid care in response to a decline in their paid work and an increase in care needs. This trend reversed in the second phase of the pandemic when men’s paid hours recovered, emphasising that a shorter week could lead to an even distribution of housework and care responsibilities.  

There is no doubt that the pandemic created a case for new ways of working. The four-day working week is indeed a forward-thinking component of this case but before we go ahead and start implementing such policies within companies, we need to walk before we can run. Only by having businesses step in time with robust flexible working strategies that will suit both companies and their clients will we set ourselves up for four days of success.  

The focus should be on the employees, to create a better work-life balance and increase workplace productivity. The key thing here is that absolutely all companies will need to implement a four-day working week in order for it to work, otherwise, it will prove unrealistic in a five-day working week world.

Harriet Shurville is global chief people officer at Iris