Is the four-day week really working?

In light of their latest research into the topic, Andrew Kakabadse, Nada Kakabadse and Asma Alawadi explore whether we will see widespread adoption of a shorter work week across the world

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A new study from Henley Business School has found that an increasing number of companies are experimenting with shorter work weeks, but often still expect employees to achieve the same levels of productivity for the same compensation.

Headline findings from the research include:

  • More than 66 per cent of businesses see a four-day work week as crucial to their long-term success

  • 70 per cent of people think a shorter work week will enhance their quality of life

  • More than 66 per cent say having more control over their work schedule benefits their mental health

  • 69 per cent feel working fewer hours gives them valuable extra time to spend with their families

  • 63 per cent of organisations say a shorter work week has helped them recruit and retain top talent

Notable organisations taking part in short work week trials have included Canon’s UK division, US-based Kickstarter, and the New Zealand company, Perpetual Guardian, which recognised a number of positives from the trial, including 78 per cent of workers saying they were able to improve their work-life balance since taking on a shorter working week.

At the beginning of the year the United Arab Emirates (UAE) became the first nation to implement a four-and-a-half-day work week, including Fridays as a flexible ‘work-from-home’ choice.

This proved to be a major innovation at the time, especially as Friday is a holy day and, although the ruling was compulsory for public-sector organisations, many companies in the UAE have since continued to retain this practice.

The UAE experience

As part of this project we contacted 40 top level executives in the UAE and concluded that companies and their employees are experiencing five key improvements as a result of implementing a shorter working week:

  1. Productivity boost

Our investigations show that employees met and even surpassed productivity goals while working fewer hours each week and UAE executives interviewed believe productivity levels improved with faster and more effective work completion rates.

Executive comments included: “I think it made us much more efficient;” and “if you give someone four-and-a-half-days to do a job they are more likely to make efficient use of that time and be more productive since they will be better prepared to focus.”

  1. The benefits of happiness

The evidence suggests that shorter work weeks result in increased happiness. The UAE is one of the few countries to establish a ‘Ministry of Happiness’ and, according to the United Nations-backed World Happiness Report, the UAE ranks number one in the Arab world for happiness.

The predominant view is that happy employees are more content in their jobs, more cooperative, better at finding solutions to problems and pay increased attention to each other’s needs.

All of this contributes to a healthier work environment and one senior executive said the change “has been very pleasant,” while others discussed the impacts on employee drive - “Employee morale is high and the employees are happy because of the new work schedule.”

When asked how the change affected them personally, one executive summarised by saying “it really improved my mental health and well-being.”

  1. Improved alignment with the West

The UAE’s decision to implement a shorter work week may have been motivated by a desire to align more closely with western work week patterns. Until recently, the UAE followed the practice of other Muslim nations by having a weekend that spanned both Friday and Saturday. The benefits to the company of adopting a schedule more in line with the West were explored at length by the management.

One executive explained: “Business-wise, the fact that we now work half-days on Fridays has aligned us with the rest of the world, as previously we were unable to do international transactions on Fridays since banks were closed.”

Another added: “It enabled us to interact with other markets, which should have a good impact on the financial market and government and private sector contact with other nations.”

  1. Reducing the impact on social lives

A shorter work week benefits workers’ social lives. A number of executives noted that previously half of Friday was devoted to prayer, making the old weekends seem much shorter than they actually were.

One commented “as a Muslim, I would devote half the day on Friday to prayer, therefore the weekend for Muslims consisted of just one and a half days. Now, since it’s Monday through Friday, with Friday ending at 12pm I get to go to prayer immediately after work, then have a late lunch with my family, and now I have two-and-a-half days off.”

Another executive describes the change as an important aspect in their lives: “Importantly, the weekend seems considerably longer since Saturday and Sunday are entire days off, without interruptions on Friday.”

Others experience the new arrangement as being highly motivating in their careers: “Visiting family, taking some time away from work, and then returning to the office eager to tackle any assignment. It’s motivating.”

  1. Job flexibility attitudes improve post pandemic

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, people’s working lives have been drastically impacted, most notably accelerating the long-overdue trend toward flexible work arrangements and popularising the four-day work week.

The Executives involved in this study argued that the COVID-19 pandemic expedited their organisations’ choice to implement shorter work weeks and working-from-home arrangements.

According to one executive “As a result of covid’s impact the majority of businesses and government agencies began working from home and Covid showed us that individuals can work from anywhere, especially given the present state of technology.”

Others credit COVID-19 work arrangements as paving the way for the “ease of implementation” with which compact work week arrangements are now being readily accepted.

The downside

There are inevitably prospective negatives to remote and shorter work week patterns.

One executive pointed out their preference for employees to either opt for four or five full days, noting: “I don’t think employees feel happy coming in for a half-day. Many have long commutes. So even from an employee perspective, there are challenges. From my end, it’s because half-days are just far less productive than a full working day. It’s just not worth the trouble and operating cost.”

Despite the motivating effect of the shorter work week, the global outlook suggests that adoption is still patchy. Although many have become accustomed to remote work in the wake of the pandemic, turning up to the office only one or three days a week, such a work-life balance is still uncommon in the UK.

However, this comes in the context of more than 3,300 employees at 70 UK companies recently beginning a four day working week with no reduction in pay as part of a pilot project running for six months and based on the ‘100-80-100 model’ where 100 per cent pay for 80 per cent of the time, in exchange for a commitment to maintain 100 per cent productivity.

Even before the pandemic, a 2019 poll of 36,000 Americans carried out by YouGov America found that two-thirds would prefer a four day work week, irrespective of whether this meant longer working hours on those days.

Indeed, such arrangements may begin to blur the length of the working day and week, meaning that while many still wish to work remotely, being on the laptop in order to catch-up over the weekend may increasingly become commonplace.

If this is the case a shortened work week could meet the same fate as the happiness imperative. While it’s a nice ambition with many associative positives, is it adding enough to the organisation’s competitive advantage?

If happiness and short work weeks are viewed negatively as critical performance differentiators by the executive, expect to see a sustained campaign against their proliferation the more the pandemic becomes a distant memory.

Andrew Kakabadse is professor of governance and leadership; Nada Kakabadse is professor of policy, governance and ethics; and Asma Alawadi is a doctoral researcher, all at Henley Business School