The 4-day week: does it actually work?

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Five years ago, Wyatt Watts arrived for his first day of work at Platten’s in Wells-next-the-Sea in Norfolk, east England. “It felt like a challenge,” he reflects, dealing with the “fast pace” of a fish-and-chip shop packed with hungry day-trippers.

On a sunny morning this summer, Watts, now a team leader, was preparing for a new test. The 26-year-old was worried his work was about to become more intense and stressful. Yet he was determined to make it a success.

For if he could squeeze his 40-hour week into just 32 hours — cleaning the stainless steel kitchen, preparing mushy peas and the batter while fulfilling his management responsibilities — he would receive full pay and more free time.

Platten’s is one of 70 companies, encompassing 3,300 employees, who signed up to the UK trial of the four-day week, running from June to December 6. It is spearheaded by 4 Day Week Global, a non-profit organisation founded by Andrew Barnes, a New Zealand entrepreneur who implemented a four-day week in his own financial services company Perpetual Guardian, after a trial in 2018.

Wyatt Watts, team leader at Platten’s chip shop, Wells-next-the-Sea, Norfolk. ‘The hours . . .  weren’t as long as what they used to be, so I still felt like I had free time’ © Si Barber/FT

Researchers at Cambridge university, Boston College and Oxford university will measure the impact of a shorter week on productivity and wellbeing. Parallel pilots running in Ireland and the US, comprising 33 companies and 903 employees, show signs of promise. A report by 4 Day Week Global found that “physical and mental health . . . work-life balance and satisfaction increased.” While revenues rose about 8 per cent over the trial, “absenteeism was reduced and resignations declined slightly”.

Interest in the four-day week has been gathering momentum. Last year, Unilever’s New Zealand operations switched to four days, recently extending it to Australia. In the UK, Atom Bank last year introduced a 34-hour week. While in Belgium, workers won the right to compress five days into four.

The trial was forged in the aftermath of the pandemic which forced largely white-collar workers to retreat to their homes and ripped up the 9-5 office routine. Other experiments include a seven-day flexible week by Arup, the engineering company, and Airbnb’s work-from-anywhere policy.

Joe O’Connor, the chief executive of 4 Day Week Global, says: “This was something which, pre-pandemic, was a growing niche [but] still very much a fringe concept . . . The impact of the pandemic has turbocharged the four-day-week movement.”

Yet since the trial started, the economy has deteriorated. Many wonder if employers will row back on flexible working policies implemented in the pandemic. Snap, the tech company, which earlier this year announced lay-offs, recently asked employees to come to the office four days a week.

Advocates for the four-day week point out that unlike a season or a day, there is nothing natural about the working week. The two-day weekend — dispensing with working on Saturday morning — did not take off in the UK until after the second world war, quashing arguments that too much leisure time could spur political activism among the working classes.

Nathan Hanslip, co founder and chief executive of Yo Telecoms
Nathan Hanslip, co-founder and chief executive of Yo Telecoms, says ‘alarm bells’ went off when it transpired that a sizeable minority believed they were simply getting an extra day off © Charlie Bibby/FT

If the trial prompts widespread take-up of a four-day week, advocates say wider societal benefits could include increased gender equality, improved wellbeing, as well as a reduction in workers’ carbon footprint.

Detractors fear a loss of output, alongside other risks such as burnout, erosion of workplace culture or the uptake of second jobs.

A series of FT interviews with employers and employees at four companies across different sectors from fast food to financial services at the start and towards the end of the trial’s span offers an inside view of the complexities of pulling off a significant organisational shift.

Prep for success

In a large meeting room with exposed brick walls, Shaun Rutland, chief executive at east London-based games designer Hutch, talks about his motives.

“Coming out of the pandemic, people are quite burnt out,” he says. “We had quite a few people leave.” Some re-evaluated their purpose in life and changed industries, including becoming teachers.

Hutch needed to think how to retain and recruit staff when competitors were increasingly offering fully-remote work. For Rutland, the four-day week arrived as an epiphany when a consultant friend mused that in 10 years, it could become the norm. “I was like, ‘Oh, really?’” he says.

The risks were not only a decline in output but that the intensity of working fewer days might offset any gains from having one extra day off.

Brendan Burchell, professor of social sciences at Cambridge university and one of the trial’s observers, says: “We know that one of the things that’s particularly bad for people’s mental health in organisations is constant time pressure, always having to work to tight deadlines . . . at high speed.”

A drive for efficiency might also mean less socialising at work, diminishing morale, preventing knowledge from being shared and harming organisational culture.

Charmaine St John, head of people (L) at Hutch gaming and Anna Yukhtenko, head of analytics
Charmaine Clavier-St John, head of people (L) at Hutch gaming, and Anna Yukhtenko, head of analytics. Clavier-St John says at first they measured too much, adding to the workload, so scaled back © Charlie Bibby/FT

The planning period for a four-day week, says O’Connor, “determines the success or failure”. It requires input from workers at all levels of the company, he says, because even “the most detail-oriented CEO in the world does not know the day-to-day intricacies of each of their employees’ jobs”. 

At Hutch, leaders answered and publicly shared the answers to more than 140 anonymous questions and ran Q&A sessions with each team. Senior leadership likes to joke it took six months of six-day weeks to transition to four days.

Stellar Asset Management, a London-based financial services company, gave the challenge to its Leadership Development Programme, comprising a group of junior employees. They worked through the practicalities in advance and set out how to measure the effects through quantitative and qualitative surveys on productivity and performance.

The companies each planned for handovers between staff, introduced sickness tracking data and refresher training for managers to set goals, and sought ways to increase efficiency through technology. Stellar introduced a database management tool and a new client portal to streamline communication. David Stein, Stellar’s investment manager, says the process has been a spur to “interrogating how you were working”.

Employees were encouraged to plan their diaries better and schedule shorter meetings, or only participate for parts to claw back time. Andy Bass, art director at Hutch, says he halved his weekly meetings to 10 hours, sometimes listening to recordings while doing admin.

For two hours every Wednesday, Hutch employees focus on so-called deep work, uninterrupted by meetings or calls. The company also created a dedicated quiet area.

There was also task reallocation. In Hutch’s art studio, jobs were given to the most suitable artists. The downside was that artists were not stretching themselves with projects that were outside their comfort zone, a particular issue for junior employees. “We don’t have that luxury now,” says Bass. “Because we need to hit our deadlines.” It did lead to providing additional training.

At Platten’s, the fish and chip shop, staff were handed cards at the start of their shifts setting out the priority tasks so that they could hit the ground running.

There was initial “scepticism” when Platten’s asked staff to keep a daily diary to gauge the productivity baseline for a standard working week and find efficiencies, says owner Luke Platten. Some employees resented the scrutiny of their working day, causing one to quit. “Building a culture of trust and being really open and honest . . . is something that just takes time and a lot of reassurance,” Platten adds.

Yo Telecoms, a small telecoms company based in Southampton, initially floated the idea of incentivising shorter weeks: if someone failed to hit their normal output, the next month would revert to five days.

This approach was rejected by Hutch’s Rutland. “Knowledge workers have ups and downs in life,” he says. “There are reasons why some of your star performers start becoming sad or slow or whatever.”

Ultimately, Yo Telecoms did not proceed with the four-day-week trial after finding difficulties in measuring performance for some departments, notably marketing. Extra engineers would also have been needed to cover staffing gaps.

When it transpired that a sizeable minority believed they were simply getting an extra day off without having to boost productivity on the other four days, it “raised alarm bells,” says Nathan Hanslip, the chief executive. He says he will reassess when the economy improves.

Productivity pains

“The acid test,” says Jon Boys, labour economist at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is whether companies can “boost productivity by 25 per cent” on the days they do work. “That is a whopper.”

Some departments, like sales, found it relatively easy to measure productivity but others found it far harder. It was also tricky to distinguish the impact of the four-day week from the world coming out of lockdowns.

Charmaine Clavier-St John, head of people at Hutch, says at first they measured too much, adding to the workload, so scaled back. The “sprint velocity”, a way of measuring productivity in their games department, remained steady.

Platten’s found it impractical to measure the speed of cooking or service, and was reluctant to use revenues as an indicator of success due to changes in the business. Instead, it focused on a number of indicators, including customer satisfaction and unauthorised absence, one sign of stress. That fell “through the floor”, says Platten, noting a 74 per cent increase in staff retention and seasonal workers wanting to return. Participation in voluntary training went up from 76 per cent to 94 per cent.

Shaun Rutland, CEO and co-founder of Hutch gaming
Shaun Rutland, CEO and co-founder of Hutch gaming. ‘Coming out of the pandemic, people are quite burnt out,’ he says © Charlie Bibby/FT

Daryl Hine, chief operating officer at Stellar Asset Management, focused on outcomes, such as delivering projects or reports by key dates, sales teams hitting targets, or investment teams doing deals, and is satisfied “we are achieving the same amount in fewer hours.”

Platten’s found a flexible approach worked best. In peak tourist season, for example, it paused the 32-hour week. But because of efficiencies the company had introduced, Watts says “the hours . . . weren’t as long as what they used to be, so I still felt like I had free time.” In September, they returned to 32 hours, and in winter switched to 24 as compensation — on full salary.

At Stellar, two employees said they preferred the pace of a five-day week, and many would take important calls or Zoom meetings on their day off. Hutch found 43 per cent worked above their contracted hours, though 71 per cent only added an additional two hours.

One difficulty for all knowledge workers was distinguishing between leisure and work. Was golf with a client fun or duty? Some said they saw the time off as an opportunity to study for professional qualifications, networking events and going to public speaking classes.

Hutch’s Rutland describes the experience as “at times challenging and tough”, intensifying the pace of work and forcing him to make decisions quicker. He wonders if his increased presence at home in the working week has made his kids miss him more on work trips. “I don’t know if that’s connected to the four-day week, but I had wondered if it’s because I’m more there for them on the weekends.”

In the context of the cost of living crisis, another risk is that employees will take on a second job. Platten is worried how this would interfere with wellbeing, but is nervous about crossing the line into workers’ private lives. “It is such a fine balance,” he says.

The future of work

The 4 Day Week trial will not publish its findings until February next year. But three of the four companies the FT spoke to plan to stick with it.

Stellar Management’s Hine says it has made a “massive difference” in terms of attracting hires and retaining staff. What was initially branded as a “gift day” will now become a “flexible working day,” which it hopes will eliminate any paternalistic connotations of it seeming like a reward.

Rutland at Hutch says the experience has been “really energising” and plans to hold productivity boot camps every six months. “It’s shaken the business up,” he says, won over by working more effectively. “There is a certain cost to it, but the benefits …definitely outweigh the costs.”

For Watts at Platten’s, the success of the trial can be measured in weights. As a result of shorter working week he has been able to go to the gym more. “I was doing six reps on 25kg and I was like, ‘I need to push myself. Now I do 10 to 12 reps on 32 and a half kg.’ Everything is transformed from my mindset to physically as well.”

David Stein, Investment Manager of Stellar
David Stein, investment manager of Stellar, says the process has been a spur to ‘interrogating how you were working’ © Charlie Bibby/FT

Will the trial convince employers to follow? Even among those enthusiastic about the results, there are concerns that once this becomes a standard work pattern, some of the efficiencies will be lost.

More broadly, as employers and employees grapple with high inflation and energy bills, focus will turn to job preservation rather than perks.

According to the CIPD, only 1 per cent of employers anticipate cutting hours on the same pay over the next three years. Of those that have already reduced hours, about 30 per cent said they did not achieve the “same volume of work [or] output as before”.

Recent data from LinkedIn found that 28 per cent of employers anticipate reducing flexible working and hybrid working roles.

For many workers, shortening the working week is also less of a priority than having flexible or predictable hours. The Living Wage group, which accredits employers who pay a salary covering living costs, earlier this year launched liveable hours, guaranteeing predictable shifts, amounting to at least 16 hours a week.

Some simply want to be able to work enough hours to get by. While some white-collar workers are happy to reduce working hours even if it reduced salary, according to the Social Market Foundation think-tank, “by contrast, care and hospitality staff are among those who would rather work for longer than they currently do.” 

Burchell at Cambridge sees the pilots not as scientific experiments but as a pathway to an alternative way of working. “People often talk about the five-day week [as] if it’s something that was in the book of Genesis. That’s very far from the truth,” he says. “Some of [the] arguments against the four-day week are going to prove to be spurious. If there’s a will to go in that direction, people can make it happen.”

Visit ft.com/working-it this week, starting Monday, for a mini-series on the four-day week as part of our workplace podcast coverage

Source: Financial Times


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