A 4-day working week for all: pipeline or pipedream?

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‘We have Boots to thank for weekends, you know?’


A passing comment recently made by an HR contact of mine over a (very delicious) slice of pizza in Camden town. A passing comment that has rolled around my mind for a little while now.

And it turns out he is right. John Boot, Chairman of Boots Corporation, revolutionised the working week for his employees in 1933 when he started closing one of his factories on Saturdays as well as Sundays. What began as a trial for a single factory in Nottingham, soon became policy, and it wasn’t long before businesses across the country were following suit. Across the pond, Henry Ford was making similar waves in his own business, but Boot was pioneering things here in UK.

90 years later, here we are, having just experienced what surely must be one of the biggest upheavals in working patterns since 1933. Or perhaps more accurately, ever. And this time, it wasn’t at a national level. Globally millions of us took to our dining rooms, our bedrooms, and our garden sheds to navigate working from home. To many it was a completely new experience, and naturally it came with huge opportunities and sometimes overwhelming challenges. But this is not what this ramble is about.

I’ve been reflecting on what our next chapter will be.

In another 90 years’ time, will some semi-inspired headhunter be bashing away at a keyboard (or whatever contraption is the norm for the time) thinking about when the working world was overhauled once again? Could Covid-19 be the catalyst that shifts us to a 4-day working week for good? That’s a permanent 3-day weekend for perspective – sounds like the dream, no?

‘Future of Work’ is a very buzzy term right now. But the concept of a 4-day working week is not a new one. In 1930, John Maynard Keynes suggested that a 15-hour working week would be possible within only a couple of generations. And as early as the 1950’s, Richard Nixon was promising Americans they’d only have to work 4 days a week ‘in the not-too-distant future’, alongside a fuller family life for all – ah, politicians.

Amongst the more recent noise in this space, there is some promising research and exciting studies are starting to emerge as more and more businesses take the plunge.

Earlier this year, not-for-profit group 4 Day Week Global, released their findings after a 6-month study of businesses trialling reduced working weeks here in the UK. 61 companies, approximately 2900 employees, signed up to a 6-month trial in which individuals worked reduced hours following a model coined 100-80-100™. Essentially employees earned 100% of their pay, for 80% of the time, in exchange for a commitment to delivering 100% of the output. Amongst a very comprehensive report, here are the findings that really stood out to me:

  • Revenue rose by 4% on average over the trial.
  • When compared to a similar period from previous years, organisations reported revenue increases of 35% on average.
  • The number of staff leaving fell by 57%.
  • 71% of employees had reduced levels of burnout; 39% were less stressed; 43% felt an improvement in mental health and 37% felt an improvement in physical health.
  • 73% of workers said they had greater satisfaction with their time.
  • The time men spent looking after children increased by more than double that of women (27% to 13%).

And on top of all of this, 92% of the businesses taking part in the trial are continuing the 4-day working week. Of the five companies who aren’t, two are extending their trials, and three have paused for the moment. Surely this statistic alone speaks volumes?

This UK data has been added to a growing set of global data which, so far, is reinforcing these key themes suggesting people are ‘working smarter not harder’.

Across the globe, governments and unions are seemingly starting to steer companies in the direction of reduced working hours. Employees in Belgium now have the right to request compressing their contracted 38 weekly hours into 4 days; Japan’s 2021 economic policy guidelines recommended that companies let staff work 4 days instead of 5; Germany’s largest trade union is currently campaigning for a 4-day working week (in addition to already having one of the shortest average working weeks at 34 hours) and various countries including Scotland and Spain are pledging huge sums of money to invest in 4 day working week trials.

Significantly closer to home for me, Eton Bridge Partners recently trialled a 9-day fortnight approach across our 100 or so employees. Naturally I was thrilled to discover on return from my maternity leave that this has been approved to continue permanently. For me, the impact of this (financially, socially, and emotionally) is already immense and I am grateful that we are one of the pioneers of a different approach within our industry.

But amidst all this excitement, a dash of reality. This ‘movement’, if we can call it that, will inevitably bring its challenges. Putting aside some of the nitty-gritty around bank holidays, ensuring adequate cover for clients and the need for clear boundaries and expectations, a 4-day working week is just not going to be an option for everybody (in a similar way to how weekends currently just don’t work for every profession). What will a 4-day working week mean for schools and can the same principle be applied there? How will organisations manage mixed populations such as head office staff vs. boots on the ground workers? Will squeezing 5 days’ worth of work into 4 days lead to greater levels of stress in the long term (nobody can maintain super high levels of efficiency all the time)? What are the short/ medium term financial implications of rolling out an approach like this? And can we be sure that 100% of employees will want to move to a 4-day week (perhaps this should be a choice).

What a fascinating mix of challenges to unpick and barriers to break down for leaders.

So, what do we think? Is the 4-day working week in the pipeline or is it a pipedream? I’d love to hear from others working through some of this!

And for those wondering, the delicious pizza can be found at Rossopomodoro. You’re welcome!


Get in touch with Charlotte here to continue the conversation.