6 minute read • published in partnership with Irwin Mitchell
Insight: Three important lessons learned from the success of the four-day working week trial
Last year, the UK launched a six month trial of the four-day working week. Sixty one organisations took part involving nearly 3,000 employees. They were drawn from a range of sectors including manufacturing. Jo Moseley from Irwin Mitchell looks at the results and shares three important lessons for manufacturers.
The results fo the four-day working week trial have been published and are overwhelmingly positive:
• 92% are continuing with the trial
• 18% have permanently adopted four-day week working
• 35% increased their revenue (compared to the same period in previous years)
• 57% reported higher retention rates than normal
You can read the results report here: Four Day Week Pilot
Did all employers adopt the same four-day working pattern?
No. Each company that took part in the pilot tailored it to fit around its operational needs. The main approaches were:
• Fifth day stoppage – shutting down operations for one additional day per week (over the third of participating companies chose to have Friday off)
• Staggered – staff take alternating days off: one example is dividing staff into two teams with one team taking Mondays off, and the other taking Fridays off
• Decentralised – different departments operating different work patterns (which in some cases resulted in a mixture of the previous two models)
• Annualised – employees working a 32-hour average working week, calculated over a year (to reflect seasonable variations in trade)
• Conditional – continuing the trial was tied to staff continuing to meet performance targets (either individually or by department)
Was employee feedback positive?
Yes. Employees were surveyed after the trial: 90% said that they ‘definitely wanted to’ continue with four-day week working and, 15% were so impressed and said that no amount of money would convince them to accept a traditional five-day week working pattern at their next job! Those that said they would be willing to increase their hours made it clear that they would only do so if they received significant pay increases.
Feedback was less positive from employees who had taken part in conditional trials, and had been denied four-day working because of concerns about their performance or that of their teams (they were particularly cheesed off when other parts of the business continued with the trial). Some complained that the decision making around this was ‘opaque’ and ‘unfair’.
There were significant benefits to employees’ health and wellbeing.
• 71% of employees had reduced levels of burnout by the end of the trial
• 39% were less stressed
• 43% felt an improvement in their mental health
• 54% said they experienced fewer negative emotions
• 37% saw improvements in their physical health
• 46% reported a reduction in fatigue, and
• 40% saw a reduction in sleep difficulties.
There were also financial benefits. Working a day less a week resulted in a reduction in childcare costs for 21% of employees. The organisation responsible for the trial – 4 Day Week – claimed that a parent with two children would save £3,232.40 on average per year or roughly £269.36 per month.
Did employees report any drawbacks?
Yes. Some people working at one large company said they found themselves struggling to get through their to-do lists in the shorter time period, and that work became more intense as a result. Some managers and staff also reported feeling that the focus on efficiency had made their workplace less sociable.
Did all of the employees worker less hours than normal?
On average, work time declined from 38 hours per week to 34 per week and the average number of days worked went from 4.86 to 4.52 (slicing off roughly a third of a day). The detailed statistics revealed that 71% of workers reported a decline in working hours, 15% worked additional hours, and 13% experienced no change. It appears that many employees experienced four-day weeks, but occasionally carried out modest amounts of work on the fifth day.
What lessons can other employers learn from this pilot?
A 2022 employer survey by the CIPD found that 34% of respondent organisations thought the four-day week will be a reality for most UK workers during the next ten years.
The 4-day week campaign keeps list of companies in the UK who are already on permanent 32 hours week (gold standard) and 35 hours week (silver standard) and is hoping to add more following the pilot scheme. At the moment there is 119 companies on the list altogether.
MP’s are also starting to consider the issue. A Private Members Bill which wants to amend the Working Time Regulations 1998 to reduce the maximum working week from 48 hours per week to 32 hours per week has had its first reading in parliament. Although that’s unlikely to get anywhere without government support, my guess is that the pressure on employers to reduce workloads and increase the work/life balance on their staff will continue.
If you are thinking about trialling a form of four-day working pattern, I recommend that you consider these issues:
1 – Planning, preparation and persistence
Some businesses will find it easier to move towards a four-day working week than others. But, it’s unlikely to be a walk in the park for any organisation. Implementing major organisational change is difficult and you need ‘buy in’ from key stakeholders.
This survey demonstrates that there isn’t a one size fits all approach. You will need to think carefully about the best approach for your business, decide how you will implement it and get buy in from your staff and management. They need to understand how long the trial will last, what constitutes success and how you reach a decision about whether to make the change permanent.
And, you need to accept that it may not always go to plan. One of the businesses which took part in the pilot told the BBC “We have all had to work at it … Some weeks are easier than others and things like annual leave can make it harder to fit everything in, but we’re much more settled with it now overall than we were at the start.”
2 – Workplace culture
Although the vast majority of employee’s welcomed reducing their working hours without suffering a reduction in pay, the survey highlighted some difficulties. Allowing staff to work shorter working hours without reducing their workloads, can increase pressure and stress unless it’s accompanied by changes to work processes. Some employees talked about having to work more intensely to get through their ‘to do’ lists and others found that they actually had to work additional hours to complete their tasks. Around 15% said that they found it harder to get to sleep.
Businesses involved in the trial found that staff came up with innovative and practical ways of working smarter to maintain, and in some cases, increase productivity. These included reforming the norms around meetings, changing email etiquette, automating aspects of the work, consolidating processes or software, and introducing a designated time of the day for staff to complete independent work without being interrupted.
Unless you get this right, you could damage the culture of your workplace. If colleagues don’t have time to collaborate and chat to each other, they will find it more difficult to forge good working relationships. That could damage morale and make the workplace a less attractive place to work.
3 – Employee retention
Unemployment is at a record low. Officially, about 1.3 million people in the UK were unemployed in December 2022: an unemployment rate of 3.7%. It’s a candidate’s market in many sectors and employers are struggling to fill vacancies. Employees whose skills are in demand are becoming increasingly choosy about which offer to accept, with many opting to work for organisations that can demonstrate strong environmental, social, and governance (ESG) credentials.
This study indicated that operating a four-day week helps to improve recruitment and retention. Some saw the pilot as an opportunity to be at the forefront of historical change and obtain competitive advantages in doing so for their reputation, recruitment and retention.