How challenging is it to implement a four-day week?

A four-day working week may be attractive for employees, but what challenges could organisations encounter? Ashleigh Webber looks at some of the practicalities of the shorter working week.

Interest in the idea of a four-day working week has been growing recently, following the launch of what is thought to be the first major UK trial.

The six-month pilot, overseen by campaign group 4-Day Week Global and think-tank Autonomy, will see dozens of companies test the concept so that researchers can analyse the impact it has on productivity and staff wellbeing.

The idea is that employees work one fewer day per week with no loss of pay, often working the same number of contracted hours but over four days rather than five. Its advocates argue that employees can be just as productive, if not more, as staff seek to minimise distractions.

According to office space broker Instant Offices, there was a 110% rise in Google searches referencing four-day weeks after the UK pilot was announced, indicating how attractive the idea could be. It has also been identified as the most sought-after employee benefit.

With numerous trials having been run in New Zealand, Iceland and Japan, the concept of a shorter working week is by no means new. Jamie McKenzie, director at Sodexo Engage, says: "The five-day working week was cemented centuries ago, but at a time when many workers had partners at home to handle cooking, cleaning, and childcare." He notes that more than half of employees report work eating into their personal life.

"The world has changed a lot since then, and even if one doesn't have children to fill up their hours, our understanding of wellbeing, especially mental health, and productivity has grown in leaps and bounds since the days of physically clocking in and out."

The founders of 4-Day Week Global, Andrew Barnes and Charlotte Lockhart, both successfully launched shorter working weeks in their organisations in New Zealand. The group now supports others across the world to trial shorter weeks, and is also running further organised trials this year in Ireland, the US and Canada.

Joe O'Connor, 4-Day Week Global's pilot program manager, says it received a phenomenal response from UK employers keen to learn more about the pilot that begins in June.

"We've had as much contact in the first week in the UK as we did in the first six to eight weeks in the US and Canada; 35 companies have joined the trial in the US and Canada, but we expect around 50 organisations will want join the UK trial," he says.

O'Connor estimates that around 7% of organisations in the UK are operating a four-day week, but hopes that figure will grow as more wake up to the benefits it can bring in terms of recruitment, retention, employee engagement, wellbeing and productivity.

This means that being an early mover will be essential in order to reap the competitive benefits.

Four-day weeks in action

One organisation that has had a four-day week in place for some time is recruitment firm MRL Consulting Group, which has since seen a 25% increase in productivity, 95% staff retention and a 40% reduction in short-term sickness absence.

"I think the ultimate benefit is that we are, and are seen to be, a ground-breaking employer who truly puts employee wellbeing and welfare at the top of the tree," says chief executive David Stone. "Having operated on a four-day week for almost three years, the benefits we've seen have stood the test of time."

Digital marketing agency Reflect Digital switched to a four-day week in 2018 to give its staff a better work-life balance. It has also inspired some of its clients to trial shorter working weeks, CEO Becky Simms says.

"Productivity definitely increased. No longer were team members feeling the need to do overtime to get their work done, instead, they were able to get everything completed on time," says Simms.

"It gives everyone so much more time each week to spend with friends, family, or doing a hobby. It means when they come back to work, they feel fully refreshed from having had three days off."

Re-evaluating work

Until Covid-19 hit, the idea of a shorter working week - or even home-working - might have seem far-fetched to some employers, but the pandemic has encouraged many to rethink the work-life balance and benefits they offer.

"The lived experiment of home working has opened employers' eyes about doing things a new way. They are thinking about how they can do things better," says Steve Herbert, head of benefits strategy at Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing.

"[The shorter working week] is becoming trendy and the trendier it gets, more companies will become more willing to open their minds about it."

Employers are also considering ways they could boost productivity, and switching to a four-day week might achieve this, says Herbert.

"The other big driver is recruitment and retention," he adds. "If you're thinking of leaving and your employer offers you a four-day week, you're probably going to stay put for a bit, and in the current market that's really important."

A poll conducted by Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing in March 2021 found that almost a quarter of senior HR and finance professionals were open to the idea of a four-day work week. Four per cent were actively considering it, and 2% had already implemented it.

Standing out

Social care provider Fairway Homecare launched a four-day week for head office staff earlier this month, and it has so far seen benefits in terms of staff engagement and wellbeing.

It's left up to individual teams to decide which days they will have off, as long as all days are covered as its usual service levels are maintained.

"We're looking to open up some more locations in the Midlands, so it was a case of looking at how we can stand out from the crowd," explains operations director Alex O'Neill. "It's great to tell candidates about it at interview. We're hopeful that in terms of attracting some talent it will help."

He adds it may also prove to be a useful retention tool while competition for talent remains high.

"Once people get used to four-day weeks it's going to be very hard for them to go back to five days at work, so we will probably see the value of it more next year when people, hopefully, don't want to move on," he says.

The challenges

Taken at face-value, the idea of a four-day week seems attractive for both employees and employers, who stand to benefit from more a productive and engaged workforce, but O'Neill warns of some challenges Fairway Homecare had to overcome.

Some staff had to be upskilled to ensure that some tasks could still be completed when colleagues were off work, and although staff are usually able to choose which day they wanted to drop, payroll staff have to work certain days to ensure employees get paid on time.

"Be prepared to be flexible. If someone says they would much rather work five days and have more holiday because of their childcare arrangements, you need to practice the flexibility you preach," he advises.

Rich Westman, founder of employee wellbeing and team-building platform Kaido, says employers should watch out for signs of stress as staff try to maintain 100% productivity in just 80% of the time they are used to.

"Companies taking part in the trial will need to ensure that they are continuing to introduce wellbeing initiatives into those four days, rather than relying on a three-day weekend being enough," he says.

"We've already seen record-high levels of loneliness at work, and with one less day in the office, it is important we don't lose that team connection and work harder at maintaining those relationships as well as hitting deadlines."

One of the benefits of taking part in a pilot such as the one organised by 4-Day Week Global is that organisations can learn how others have overcome practical challenges and share best practice, says O'Connor.

"The negative experiences we've seen have generally taken place before the trial has started or way down the road," he says. "Around 10-15% of companies that sign up might drop out before it starts, generally for two reasons: there might've been a change in their business that requires them to postpone, [or they have] approached it wrong."

The Wellcome Trust hit the headlines in 2019 after it dropped plans to trial a four-day week as it believed it would be "too operationally complex" after consulting with staff.

Bottom-up process

O'Connor says employers often feel they need to come up with solutions to everything that might go wrong before the trial takes place.

"In reality this needs to be a bottom-up rather than a top-down process," he says. "Leaders need to set targets and be really clear and communicate with people around how they are going to judge success. They need to empower employees to come up with ways they can deliver the same output in four days rather than five."

MRL Consulting Group had one-to-one meetings with employees to ensure they were receiving the support they needed to tackle distractions.

"Additional tailored, personalised training and an increase in one-to-one mentoring reviews were the biggest changes we made to ensure employees felt supported and capable of achieving their weekly targets," says Stone. "We also doubled down on team-building activities, and moved weekly socials to Thursday evenings instead of Friday to ensure the culture we have built remained strong."

No going back

Organisations must be absolutely sure they want a shorter week, and that it has a good chance of success, before they announce a trial to staff. Once a four-day week is launched, there is no going back, says Herbert.

"The 'own goal' of running it for a few months as a trial and then finding it just isn't working would be really painful," he says. "You may well lose staff who have enjoyed the work-life balance benefits. I'm not sure how you'd reverse it easily, but you can certainly tweak it."

Simms says: "My top advice would be to look at how it can best fit within your organisation, consult with your leadership team and think carefully.

"If you are cutting hours, you have to be clear this is actually possible, as the negativity from the team if it just feels like a PR stunt will be hard to recover from."

As we have seen with the arrival of hybrid working, introducing a four-day week would involve a steep learning curve for organisations and employees, and would require some tweaks before the right balance is struck. But there is now enough experience from organisations that have implemented shorter weeks to draw on for learning.

For example, O'Connor says that organisations commonly see a dip in productivity 12-18 months into a shorter working week regime, but this should not cause alarm.

"We always tell companies that it's something they need to continuously learn from. In the long run they will see a wealth of benefits as their people will feel more energised and will be engaged in more fulfilling work," he says.