The Four Day Week – a new reality?

Business 23rd February 2022

A few years back, I posted a blog on the (revolutionary) idea of a four-day working week. This was well before the pandemic had even been thought of. How interesting that, amongst the many changes in working practices that have emerged as a consequence of COVID-19, the idea of reducing the working week by 20% has, for many businesses, come much closer to reality.

Back in 2017, a New Zealand financial services company, Perpetual Guardian, trialled switching their 240 employees, located across both islands, to a four-day week, with no loss of pay. The results astonished both the sourest of cynics and the most enthusiastic of ‘believers’.

Within months, the company was able to report –

1. Improved staff well-being with significantly lower job stress and burnout

2. Greater workplace creativity

3. Teams are stronger and functioning better together

4. Increased employee engagement – improved ‘vibe’ towards the employer, resulting in higher retention – therefore lower recruitment costs

5. Productivity up by an average of 20%

Much of the more recent thought leadership on the topic of the four-day week has come from much closer to home than New Zealand. Just a few weeks ago, the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales produced a report calling on the Welsh Government to launch, through its public sector, a pioneering shorter working week trial.

A new, combined report by the Commissioner and think-tank, Autonomy, shows a growing appetite for a working time reduction in Wales – a move which they believe could create as many as 38,000 jobs in the principality.

The report reveals that among the Welsh public

– 76% support the idea of sharing work so that everyone, enabling more workers to enjoy a healthy work-life balance.   

– 62% would prefer to work a four-day working week.   

– 57% would support the Welsh government piloting a scheme to move towards a four-day working week.

Collaborating with and empowering the Trade Unions

The new report, A Future Fit for Wales: The roadmap to a shorter working week, recommends that firms in both the public and private sectors should trial shorter working hours. The report advocates collaborating with and empowering trade unions so they can negotiate shorter hours across diverse workplaces.

Wales would be as good a place as any in the UK to trial the idea. Sophie Howe, Wales commissioner, explains, “There are different challenges in different sectors, but we might as well try it. The alternative is to keep working as normal, which, along with the cost of living crisis, will almost certainly result in a growth in mental health issue.”

Falling absenteeism – rising productivity

Wales has high levels of sickness and relatively low productivity. Incomes are lower than in other parts of the UK. The Future Generations Commission’s report believes that, by cutting hours but not pay, absenteeism would fall and productivity increase, resulting in a healthier population putting less pressure on the NHS.

Ms Howe continued, “What I’m not saying is that suddenly overnight every business in Wales should be offering a reduced working week.

“What I’m saying is there should be some pilots across Wales with different types of businesses.

“Two years ago, businesses said they couldn’t afford a minimum wage, and now it’s just become an absolutely standard thing.”

The response of the Welsh government has been cautious but certainly not discouraging. A spokesperson said: “We are considering the progress of pilots in other countries and examining the lessons Wales can learn.

“A shorter working week is just one example of flexible working, and through our social partnership approach, we want to encourage more employers to provide workers with greater choice over where and when they work.”

Stuck in a time warp?

The working week hasn’t changed significantly in over 100 years. Many developed nations seem to be stuck in an industrial age time-warp. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced society to look afresh at many of the modes of life that have remained unquestioned for decades, if not centuries. Post COVID talent market shortages, combined with a marked shift in people’s work/life priorities, are causing a radical change in attitudes. More than ever before, organisations need to be looking closely at the benefits of reducing working hours with no associated loss of pay.

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