Is the 4-day working week the future?

Lauren Rolfe · May 20, 2019

The idea of introducing a 4-day week may horrify some business owners. Surely if staff work for less hours that would translate to a reduction in productivity and profit? Well according to a recent report in The Guardian, no it doesn’t.

In fact, a New Zealand financial services business that recently switched to a four-day week claim that it has been an unmitigated success, cutting stress levels and boosting productivity, not reducing it, as critics of the idea predicted.

Another report, also in The Guardian, found that dozens of businesses are trialling shorter working hours and finding that it’s good for workers, customers and the bottom line. Pursuit Marketing in Glasgow switched 120 people to a four-day working week in late 2016 and has seen a 30 per cent increase in productivity.

So, is the 4-day working week really the future?

Back in 1930 economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that technology and improvements in productivity would lead to a 15-hour working week within two generations. It hasn’t happened. Yet. But with increasing automation looming and AI technology threatening a robot workforce that will take many of our jobs, could a 4-day week be a sensible move?

Many, including economic historian Robert Skidelsky (a biographer of Keynes) and the New Economics Foundation (a London-based think tank) think so. Supporters are calling for a reduction in the normal working week to address a range of problems and to achieve a more sustainable economy. The Trade Union Council (TUC) is calling for businesses to move towards implementing a 4-day week in response to automation.

Lord Skidelsky has recently been working with shadow chancellor John McDonald of the Labour Party to consider the practical possibility of shortening the traditional working week as we embrace automation. Labour believe productivity gains should be shared by all, but they also stress that it would be a mistake to consider the four-day week in isolation without addressing income inequality.

Calls for the 4-day working week are definitely gaining momentum, but there is a legitimate concern from businesses that it would be expensive and impractical to make it widely available to all staff. It could mean that low paid workers miss out.

Rich Mason writes for RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) that the 4-day week only serves salaried office workers and ignores the gig economy, zero-hours contractors and the self-employed. Isn’t it more important to address wellbeing at work and the always-on culture first?

There are many pros and cons for the 4-day working week. The concept only works when an organisation has a great culture and is genuinely interested in employee engagement, health and wellbeing, and not just expecting longer hours on 4 days and working people harder in a shorter space of time.

Shortening the working week has to come from a place of wanting employees to have a great work-life balance and trusting that people can be more productive if they are looked after.

At WeThrive we are yet to make up our minds on the 4-day working week. We firmly believe if businesses give their employees autonomy and trust them then it could work. WeThrive’s Head of Marketing, Hannah Dempster, works part-time (4 days per week) and values the time she gets to spend with her family. She believes this work-life balance is fundamental to helping her feel focused and happy at work.

Hannah says:

With two young children a work-life balance is really important to me. I love my job so I always knew I wanted to return to work but at the same time I didn’t want to miss out on those early years. I love my Tuesdays off with my youngest. Flexible working is also really important as it means I am able to attend things like Christmas Carol concerts knowing that as long as I am achieving my KPIs, it doesn’t matter when I do it.

A local recruitment company in Brighton who are also trialling a 4-day week – MRL recruitment – will be talking to us soon about their experiences. Look out for our Q&A with chief executive David Stone in our forthcoming blog soon. It will be really interesting to see the business results over the next six months.

In summary, the 4-day week does seem like a sensible way forward to ease us into a more automated future. However, success stories so far suggest the shortened working week only works in business cultures where people are truly valued. Working smarter not harder is the future.