Could a four-day week make people happier than a pay rise?

As 100 UK businesses implement a shorter week, People Management questions whether the incentive could improve cost of living-related retention issues

Credit: Sinsee Ho/iStockphoto/Getty Images

A four-day working week could take the place of a pay rise to keep employees happy, an article in The Times has said.

The suggestion comes amid widespread strike action by university staff, NHS workers, those in transport services and Royal Mail – which could result in the Army having to step in – over pay, and has been sparked by 100 UK companies moving to the model without a reduction in wages. 

The 4 Day Week group confirmed to Sky News that the 100 companies, which are separate to the 70 firms currently trialling a four-day week for six months, will give more than 2,600 employees the opportunity to permanently reduce their working week. 

A recent survey from the CIPD also found that a shorter week is a popular notion, as a third (34 per cent) of organisations think the four-day working week will become a reality for most UK workers within the next 10 years.

But could a shorter week be enough to stave off disgruntled employees walking out for a higher wage elsewhere? 

Gareth Hoyle, managing director at Marketing Signals, an adopter of the four-day week, says it has saved employees with childcare responsibilities hundreds of pounds. “We moved to a four-day week in May with no loss in pay and found that it actually saved our employees money,” he explains. “The catalyst for the move came from the rise in the cost of living, which led to an employee asking for a change in working hours because of rising childcare costs. This new model of work focuses on quality, not quantity, and revolutionises the future of work.” 

Similarly, Sally-Ann Hall-Jones, chief executive at Reality HR, says a reduced working week could be the perfect solution for employees feeling the crunch – and help with retention. “Offering a four-day work week in place of a pay rise may give people an opportunity to balance their working life with their personal life, without either one suffering,” she says.

“Employees would also be paying less to commute and would see a reduction in expenses such as lunch and coffees during the day – meaning more disposable income to be spent where it is needed most.”

But David Clare, managing director of The Monarchs, a firm that runs a slightly longer 4.5 day working week with no pay cut, said it wouldn’t be unreasonable to pay less for four days' work. “I think it is fair for businesses to require a pay cut for a four-day week; we just choose not to for the four-and-a-half day option,” he explains, with a caveat that it would be “entirely unfair to have people take a cut for four days but expect five days worth of work. “If they need to deliver the same, businesses should pay the same,” he clarifies. 

However, not everyone is as supportive of the shift. Martin Williams, head of employment and partner at Mayo Wynne Baxter, questions whether it really will result in no loss of wages: “There has to be a query as to whether offering a four-day week in lieu of a pay rise can be described as a change that involves no loss in pay. In real terms there is going to be a downgrading of pay.

“Further light is shed on such sleight of hand if someone already on a four-day week does not receive a pay rise at all. That means all are being paid the same but the starting positions are very different.” He adds that the pay level will have to be affordable, and questions whether an industry that works 24/7 could reasonably “expect it to carry a 20 per cent increase in salary costs”. 

Echoing this, Mark Chaffey, co-founder of Hackajob, points out that inequality across the workforce could cause tension, as not everyone can realistically work one day less. “Inequality is likely to grow because a four-day week is a luxury only possible for those who can compress their work in such a tidy fashion consistently, week in, week out,” he says. 

“For example, anyone who cares for somebody – whether that’s a child or an elderly relative – doesn’t have the option to work longer days. Even among the most amicable of work teams, seeing colleagues having a three-day weekend while you’re still working, or holding the fort with a reduced team when they have the extra day off, could understandably become incredibly grating.”

Meanwhile, Dr Zofia Bajorek, senior research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies, advises employers implementing a shorter week to monitor the outcomes properly. “A four-day working week may not suit every business model, or every employee, so organisations must make sure that they can re-adapt their business to this way of working,” she says, adding that, if job design or workloads are not amended to fit a four-day working week, then “employees may be at risk of working longer days to compress five days of work into four, having clear implications for both their health and wellbeing and quality of work”.