Four-day week trial: what does HR need to know?

With the world’s largest study of its kind starting this week, People Management asks what businesses should consider before implementing similar arrangements

Credit: Benjamas Suwanmanee/iStockphoto/Getty Images

This week, thousands of UK employees started working a four-day week in one of the world’s biggest experiments reducing working hours. During the trial workers from more than 70 businesses will reduce their hours down to 80 per cent without receiving a cut in pay.

At a time when many organisations are thinking about their future working arrangements and whether or not to start asking staff to be present in the workplace more of the time, People Management explores what exactly this study is seeking to discover, and what it could mean for employers.

What is it?

The four-day working week pilot, which started in the UK on 6 June, is a coordinated, six-month trial where employees working for participating firms receive 100 per cent of their pay for 80 per cent of the time. In exchange, staff are expecting to maintain the same level productivity on the reduced hours.

The pilot involves more than 3,300 workers at 70 UK companies from across a wide variety of sectors, from a local fish and chip shop in Wells-next-the-Sea in Norfolk, to the financial firm Charity Bank in Kent.

The UK trial runs alongside similar pilot schemes rolled out across Ireland, the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and is being coordinated by a coalition of organisations including 4 Day Week Global, UK think tank Autonomy, the 4 Day Week UK Campaign and researchers at Cambridge University, Boston College, and Oxford University.

What are researchers hoping to discover?

As part of the pilot, researchers will work with each participating organisation to assess the impact on productivity in the business, the wellbeing of its workers, the impact on the environment, along with gender equality.

The researchers are also putting an emphasis on how employees respond to having an extra day off in terms of their levels of job and life satisfaction, levels of stress and burnout, sleep, health, energy consumption and how they travel, among other things.

What could the findings mean for employers?

Molly Johnson-Jones, founder of Flexa Careers, is confident the research would show once and for all that the future of work is flexible. “In the same way that presenteeism doesn't equate to productivity, despite what some politicians and business leaders would have us believe, nor does working very specific, fixed hours have a positive bearing on output,” she said.

“The trial should prove this unequivocally and put this debate to bed,” said Johnson-Jones.

Other commentators were more reserved. Marcus Beaver, UK and Ireland country leader at Alight Solutions, said the trial would be vital in determining how successful a four-day week might be, and said some sectors may be better equipped to introduce such policies than others.

“Time will tell how successful this experiment is, but it will surely be a pivotal moment for the future of the world of work,” he said. “The outcome could settle once and for all if four-day-work weeks are a positive or just wishful thinking,” he said.

While some companies have independently trialled similar arrangements, it has not worked well for everyone. Notably, the Wellcome Trust abandoned 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, especially for those working in IT, finance, and HR.

Claire Campbell, director of HR research and consulting at the Institute for Employment Studies, cautioned that switching to a four-day week would not be as simple as closing the office on a Friday. “Organisations who have done it before have had to look quite fundamentally at how they work, which activities add least value and can be reduced, and how to service customers who expect a response every day,” she said. 

“The success stories so far have tended to be smaller organisations,” Campbell added, noting that it was often harder for larger firms that often have to juggle a range of different customer demands, role types, or employee working patterns.

Paula Allen, senior vice-president of research and total wellbeing at LifeWorks, cautioned that a four-day week might end up trying to address the wrong issues: “When we surveyed 2,000 UK workers in our LifeWorks Mental Health Index this month about their wellbeing, Brits actually prioritised having flexible working schedules and freedom in where they work rather than simply reduced hours. In other words, people really want more choice, not less.” 

As some organisations are considering testing the four-day week, Campbell advised that the key to success might lie in engaging employees in the design and running of the pilot throughout, leaders establishing clarity on organisational priorities and what really drives success, as well as setting a clear framework for measuring impact.

“I am confident there will be positive feedback from individuals, benefitting from improved wellbeing and work-life balance, but can the impact on customers, stakeholders, and productivity be accurately assessed?” she added.

Andrew Duncan, partner and EMEA CEO at Infosys Consulting, added that setting clear parameters around any four-day week policy would be vital to staff wellbeing. “Failure to do so risks a downturn in quality as talent attempts to squeeze the same amount of work into a shorter week,” he said.

“This also poses risks from a people management point of view – potentially resulting in burnout or staff working outside of agreed hours, setting back aims to improve work-life balance,” said Duncan.