Four-day working week: compliance challenges and how to overcome them

Sandra Moran says change is inevitable and there are plenty of ways to make it work for employees and businesses

Following much debate in recent years, it seems an evolution away from the 40-hour work week is inevitable. Across the globe we’re seeing the topic come into focus – not just in front-runner organisations, but in regulatory contexts too. Starting in Belgium, the first country to legislate a four-day work week, to the US, where a bill has been proposed in Pennsylvania.

Also, a pilot programme in the UK was so successful that 92 per cent of companies committed to continuing its implementation going forward. The four-day week proved to be a win-win – employees felt the benefits of getting time back and employers that participated saw revenue increase 1.4 per cent and staff turnover drop by an impressive 57 per cent over the trial period.

From the UK pilot programme, it’s clear that there is no right way to implement the change. The programme took on many scheduling formats, from the traditional Friday-off approach to staggered, decentralised and annualised models.

Employers considering this change to the working week need to be open minded and prioritise actual productivity, retention and engagement as their guides to a final decision.

In a change as potentially groundbreaking for staff, it’s far better to be proactive and reap the rewards of early adoption than to be forced to comply when regulation forces their hand, or when it is no longer a differentiator in the talent market.  

However, while the four-day work week offers benefits to both employees and employers, it is not without some implementation and compliance challenges that must be overcome with thoughtful planning.

Rethinking how we measure work

For a four-day work week to be effective, employers need to break traditional notions of how work is structured. Rather than view jobs as inflexible sets of tasks, managers should focus on empowering employees with the right technology and flexibility to get their work done in new ways.

This change in work patterns also means seeing that a reimagined schedule isn’t just for people in corporate roles. Roles requiring onsite presence can also benefit if leaders are willing to get innovative to overcome constraints.

By digitising scheduling and approaching scheduling creatively, nearly any job could be adapted to a more flexible schedule for the individuals performing the work. For example, an assembly line may require 300 people working five-day shifts. With the right planning, cross training and division of labour, the same output could be achieved by creatively overlapping four-day employee schedules. 

Those 300 employees aren’t simply interchangeable parts – some have specialised skills that others do not, meaning it’s more assembling the right skills and expertise for any given shift than a fixed number of resources. This way, coverage can be maintained while allowing employees more control over their schedules. Artificial constraints of ‘this is how we’ve always done things’ must evolve.

With the right systems and mindset shift focused on output rather than prescribed work methods, a four-day week can become a reality that empowers employees while still meeting business requirements – a win for both parties.

Special considerations for your sector

The transition to a four-day week raises unique compliance and scheduling challenges across different industries. However, the pandemic demonstrated that even roles requiring onsite presence can be adapted with the right technology and willingness on the part of employers. In manufacturing, condensed shifts will require careful coordination and potentially new staffing models to maintain output. The public sector will need to find ways to maintain critical services for constituents, so staggering schedules will be key.

The United Arab Emirates government adopted a four-day week in July 2023, after a programme with the emirate of Sharjah resulted in a 90 per cent improvement in job performance, employee happiness and mental wellbeing.

Highly regulated industries such as healthcare and financial services may have to be more creative to find ways to balance these flexibility demands based on the legislation they already have to comply with.

Each sector will benefit from questioning long-held assumptions. Retailers can consider flexible shift patterns based on foot traffic data. Media companies can leverage analytics to guide content production with fewer in-office days. The key is not treating past norms as constraints, but seeking creative solutions that manage the workforce and enable the business to meet its objectives.

Despite the many obstacles, it’s a worthwhile endeavour to try the four-day work week because of its benefits. In one four-day week study, 71 per cent of employees reported less burnout and 39 per cent reported less stress, while organisations saw 65 per cent fewer sick and personal days. 

With collaboration between managers and staff, a customised four-day approach can be developed for nearly any industry. It may not be easy, but it’s certainly possible to pull off a four-day week, even in jobs that must be performed in a particular place.

Supporting the process with technology

Technology will play a pivotal role in allowing organisations to implement four-day weeks without compliance or productivity pitfalls. Solutions that include digitisation, automation, machine learning/artificial intelligence, analytics and communication tools all provide greater flexibility.

As we've already seen in many other areas of business, automation can condense and speed up manual workflows, allowing employees to spend time on higher-value work. For example, optimal shift patterns and assignments can be generated with the help of scheduling apps and demand forecasting algorithms. The subsequent visibility into workload trends also aids managers in planning condensed or varied staff schedules.

Furthermore, advanced analytics help businesses optimise staffing, schedules and workload distribution for different individual work patterns while still optimising overall output. Data can reveal the workflows most suitable for automation versus those still needing human oversight.

Of course, remote working technology that has become commonplace since the pandemic, such as virtual collaboration tools and productivity software, also helps support flexible work arrangements.

We’re still in the very early phases of understanding what work needs to be performed onsite and what work could be performed somewhere else with the same efficacy. As our understanding of this grows and companies become more comfortable with offering four-day work weeks or other non-traditional work patterns, they will have the tools available to satisfy their teams’ desire for flexibility and ultimately be in a better position to differentiate themselves from those employers that have not evolved, while also complying with new legislation that may come into effect.

Sandra Moran is chief marketing and customer experience officer at WorkForce Software