The largest-ever trial of the four-day work week found that most UK companies participating are not returning to the five-day standard, and a third are ready to make that change permanent.
The study involved 61 organisations and about 2 900 workers who voluntarily adopted truncated work weeks from June to December 2022.
Only three organisations decided to the pause the experiment, and two are still considering shorter hours, data released Tuesday showed. The rest were convinced by revenue gains, drops in turnover and lower levels of worker burnout that four is the new five when it comes to work days.
That thousands of employees adopted shorter schedules is notable given that the research occurred during trying economic circumstances that squeezed many British companies, including rapid inflation, political instability and fallout from Brexit. At times, launching a work-hour reduction programme in the midst of an economic downturn seemed questionable.
“I was wondering if it might be a lot harder for companies to make four-day weeks work, and the answer seems to be no,” says lead researcher Juliet Schor, an economist and sociologist at Boston College.
Her research has long found that five-day work weeks no longer fits the lifestyles and commitments of modern employees, particularly caretakers.
“The organisations did a great job, and they’re really happy with it.”
The UK data strongly confirms the findings of smaller trials whose results were released in December, of companies based in the US, Ireland and Australia. That research showed equivalent gains in revenue and employee productivity, as well as drops in absenteeism and turnover. Those pilots were smaller, covering roughly half the number of companies in the UK trial, and a third of the employees.
“We basically got very similar results,” says Schor.
“The differences were marginal — really nothing worth talking about.”
The UK results are the second major data release in an ongoing series of 4-day tests coordinated by 4-Day Week Global, a New Zealand-based non-profit advocacy group. With each iteration, the researchers adjust their data collection, as well as begin tracking the long-term effects of lighter schedules.
Though the studies are well-designed and include organisations across a swath of industries, weak points include that the participating organisations skew smaller and that the trials are not randomised: the participating organisations all opt in and invest substantial efforts in trainings and planning — meaning that leaders are biased toward championing shorter work schedules.
Working less in a cost-of-living crisis
Employees who got a taste of the shorter workweek in the trial liked what they found. With the new schedule, workers reported improvements in everything from stress, fatigue and health to their personal life. The time men spent looking after children increased by more than double that of women during the trial.
None of the 2 900 participants said they want to ditch the four-day arrangement, and 15 percent even said that no amount of extra money could make them return to five days. Most companies adopted four-day schedules, although a small percentage opted for shorter five-day arrangements or, in the case of seasonal businesses like restaurants, an annualised four-day week model in which longer opening times in summer would compensate for shorter days in winter.
However, recent evidence showed plenty in the UK actually want to work more hours. Many see that as a lifeline to boost their earnings in the cost-of-living crisis, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, a body for HR professionals.
“The point of the trial is to gather evidence from a wide variety of companies to challenge the view that it can’t be done,” said Jon Boys, senior labor market economist at the CIPD.
“The big risk is that a 20 percent reduction in hours requires a 25 percent increase in productivity to keep output steady.”
Tuesday’s fresh UK results help make that business case for the four-day week. Organisational revenue was up 35 percent from a year earlier and rose by 1,4 percent during the trial. Though multicompany measures of productivity are difficult, the organisations rated the impact of four-day schedules as positive, averaging 7,5 on a 10-point scale.
Employee absenteeism dropped from 2 days a month to 0,7, while turnover fell by more than half, although the small sample and broader labour market dynamics make it difficult to isolate the trial effect. Companies rated the overall experience a 8,3 out of 10.
Environmental consultancy Tyler Grange, which permanently adopted a four-day schedule for its about 100 employees after the trial, said the shorter schedule boosted productivity by over a fifth and led to around 18 fewer lost days per month due to sickness. Employees also said spending an extra day at home helped them cut childcare and commuting costs.
Flexibility gains and losses
After the pandemic, flexibility around work-life balance became essential for most companies to win and keep workers in a tight labour market. Now, some see the four-day work week as a new weapon in the battle for talent.
The number of people sending their CVs to Tyler Grange almost doubled after the trial started, despite relatively few vacancies.
“The four-day week is a key strategy for employee attraction and retention,” the organisation said in a statement.
Non-profits and professional-services employees saw larger gains in time spent exercising, while construction workers saw the greatest benefits around sleep issues and burnout, UK trial results showed.
Women in particular benefitted from the extra day off. While both genders reported better outcomes, females experienced greater boosts around life and job satisfaction.
It’s also shifting household dynamics as men reported they took on more childcare and housework — though men still do not carry a 50 percent share.
Still, when it comes to the link between days worked and flexibility, some are skeptical that less is more.
“You lose flexibility with four days,” said Matthew Crummack, chief executive officer at Domestic & General, which provides insurance and repairing services for appliances.
“Our view is that inevitably on the fifth day something will crop up and you’ll end up having to work.”
Instead, Crummack’s company preferred to adopt a fully flexible working model after the pandemic that essentially leaves return-to-office decisions completely up to employees.
Companies looking to shift to four-day weeks will also run into other practical issues, like whether to give pay rises to the 25 percent of the UK workforce which already works four days per week or less, according to the CIPD.
“The experiment will probably be deemed a success if hard metrics like productivity and revenue hold up as well as other metrics like well-being. Ultimately businesses have little to lose by trial and experimentation,” said CIPD’s Boys said.
“For most businesses money talks.” — Bloomberg