More businesses adopted a four-day week during the COVID-19 pandemic as the shift to remote working spurred a major rethinking of work practices, according to a poll of senior leaders at 500 UK businesses by the University of Reading’s Henley Business School.
The survey, an update to research from 2019, showed that 21% of respondents adopted a four-day workweek for all staff in 2021, up from 18% in 2019. The majority of respondents (65%) said a four-day workweek is in place for at least some of their workers, up from 50% who said that in 2019. A four-day workweek is defined in the report as involving a reduction from five to four workdays for the same pay or a compressed workweek with the same hours across four days instead of five.
Though a four-day workweek has gained popularity, the UK numbers are perhaps higher than expected; job posting site Indeed told Computerworld that less than 1% of job postings on March 11 included the term “four-day week,” for example. A Gallup survey of full-time U.S. employees in March 2020 — prior to the pandemic — indicated that only 5% put in four days a week, with the vast majority (84%) working five days (and 11% working six days each week).
That said, numerous organizations have adopted or trialled a shorter workweek for staff since the start of the pandemic, including firms such as Atom Bank, Bolt, Buffer, and Kickstarter. And pilot projects are under way in several countries, including the US, UK, and Spain.
Such projects are not new, of course; Microsoft launched a trial at its Japan offices in 2019 that resulted in higher productivity, for example, while the UK’s Wellcome Trust ran into issues around complexity with its own project the same year.
A shorter workweek has been talked about for decades, but a shift from the five-day, 40-hour week that has been the standard for over a century has so far failed to gain momentum.
What’s behind the recent interest in the idea? One reason is that the widespread, and largely successful, shift to remote work during the pandemic showed the benefits of a more flexible approach to work, said Rita Fontinha, associate professor in Strategic Human Resource Management at the University of Reading’s Henley Business School.
“The pandemic led to a situation where most firms were forced to implement remote work and this has accelerated previous discussions that we have been having over the last two decades on flexible working,” said Fontinha. “Working from home led to increased trust [between employers and employees] and awareness of other ways of measuring performance that go beyond presenteeism. The pandemic showed that flexibility works.”
Report highlights four-day week advantages
The Henley Business School survey pointed to several advantages for businesses that implemented a four-day workweek, including costs savings (66%), improved productivity (64%), better quality output from staff (64%), and less-stressed workers (78%).
Improved employee wellbeing is connected to business outcomes too, said Jack E. Gold, founder and principal analyst at research firm J. Gold Associates.
“Keeping employees happy and motivated makes for far more productive employees, no matter what hours they work,” said Gold. “Maximizing employee productivity is a much more important way to gain business value than hours worked.”
Another benefit, noted by 68% of survey respondents that had adopted a four day week, involved hiring and retention. “People were less likely to take sick leave, people were more productive, and it was easier to attract new staff, and to retain them,” said Fontinha.
The so-called Great Resignation is also likely contributing to interest in a shorter workweek.
“What’s different now than prior to the pandemic is that we’re seeing a temporary spike in the difficulty that firms are having in hiring and retaining workers, and the four-day work week is a relatively easy benefit to extend to help ease the challenge in the short term,” said David Brodeur-Johnson, principal analyst at research firm Forrester.
A shorter workweek can mean challenges
The survey also highlighted several challenges around implementing a shorter workweek, though employer concerns have softened during the pandemic.
Among companies that did not offer a four-day week, 65% said they were worried staffing costs would outweigh any productivity benefits (though that number was down from 80%). The biggest challenge cited by employers was meeting customer demands (75%), while 70% thought a shorter week would be too complicated to manage.
Some companies may find a switch to a four-day week easier than others, said Fontinha. IT-focused firms are more likely to switch, she said, largely due to the relative ease with which tech worker output can be tracked in comparison with other roles. “Areas where we were less likely to see the four-day week were sectors that involve contact with customers, or healthcare, for example,” she said.
A shorter workweek is also more suited to companies with a relatively homogenous workforce in terms of job roles, she said, meaning large businesses with a diverse workforce may find a short workweek complicated to roll out. At the same time, the smallest companies might not have the resources to support the shift, said Fontinha, adding that there are steps all businesses can take to implement a four-day week, even if they are more gradual.
“Having this overnight shift to a four-day working week will be hard for smaller firms,” she said. “What we suggest is a progressive reduction in working hours, moving towards a four-day working week by assessing how things are going and how needs are being met, how productive people are.”
Even if the benefits outweigh the costs for many, businesses should consider their reasons for moving to a four-day week. While a shorter week provides clear benefits to work/life balance and employee wellbeing, Brodeur-Johnson warns against adopting a four-day week as a shortcut to improving employee experience. “[T]he science is clear that what really engages people is being able to make progress in meaningful work every day; to know that they can and are succeeding,” he said.
“Employee experience peaks when we can leave work knowing that we made a difference, and had a really good day,” he said. “It also comes from having a supportive manager, a supportive team environment, and feeling recognized and seen uniquely for the work that we do.
“All of these things are much harder for businesses to do for their people, because it involves behavior changes, manager development, culture changes, deeper resourcing and more that a four-day work week won’t solve on its own.”