In 1926, Henry Ford reduced his employees' working week from six days to five. Rather than seeing a proportionate drop off in revenue, it is recorded that this revolutionary idea increased the car giant's productivity, resulting in an overall positive impact. The world quickly followed suit and, for the last century, the five-day working week has been the norm in a large number of sectors.
That is, until now… possibly. Recently, in the UK, companies have been trialling a four-day working week to see whether it reaps similar benefits. It is reported that 86 per cent of businesses in the trial are in favour of this shift, perhaps at least in part brought about by the more agile and flexible working arrangements of the Covid years.
We suspect that a three-day weekend is something the majority of employees would be keen on, but is the four-day week actually beneficial for employers, too, and, conversely, what should employers bear in mind from a risk perspective?
Productivity – As counterintuitive as it may sound, studies have found that countries with the highest average number of working hours were some of the least productive. Companies involved in the current trial are reporting that shorter hours are much more effective in focusing employees on the job in hand. Ninety-five per cent of organisations surveyed halfway through the trial said productivity had stayed the same as a five-day week, or even improved.
Health and welfare (the potential positives) – Sickness and employee turnover currently costs UK employers more than £10bn annually. More time off allows employees to properly rest, improve their quality of life and feel more valued.
Equality and talent retention – A culture of long hours in a typical five-day week pattern excludes those with obligations outside of work (for example, healthcare or childcare responsibilities). This is evidenced by the underrepresentation of women in top jobs, and the gender pay gap. A four-day working week could open up jobs to a more diverse demographic, and there is evidence that a diverse workforce improves productivity. In France, a high rate of dual-earning couples with similar working hours between genders has been attributed to the strict 35-hour working week. The four-day week may rebalance parenting duties and foster healthier family dynamics.
Logistics – Some companies have attempted the four-day week but abandoned it because it was an administrative nightmare, as everyone scrambles to take Monday or Friday off. Every organisation has a mix of roles, some of which are difficult to contain in four days, such as those that are client facing.
Health and welfare (the potential negatives) – The obvious point here is that employees will need to squeeze five days of work into four, which may not be easy, and which may lead to an increase in stress levels, particularly at certain times of the year. In the current trial, the summer holidays were considered problematic, as fewer staff crossed paths given the shorter week. Those not on annual leave were reportedly spread too thin, with one worker saying ‘we’ve all been under the cosh a bit’.
Costs – When extra work comes in, employers may need to either offer overtime or hire more employees, all of which affects the company's bottom line, which may well offset the productivity boost.
Team building – If employees are spending their whole working days under pressure to get their work done, this could have a negative impact on the ability to nurture team relationships, which is hugely important for business identity and culture.
It is difficult to say whether the four-day working week will actually become commonplace. While it is clear that not every organisation will be suited to it, we certainly have precedent in history, and we have only worked less as technology has developed, yet productivity and progress continues to climb.
Jemma Pugh is a senior associate and George Cornell a trainee solicitor at Wedlake Bell