Analysis: is a four-day working week the way forward?

The appeal of a four-day working week – especially while remaining on a full-time salary – doesn’t exactly need to be underlined.

Thursday, 25th March 2021, 7:00 am

A recent survey from recruiter Robert Half found that 49 per cent of UK workers want to swap to a compressed four-day week – and the concept is picking up political momentum in both Spain and Scotland.

But is it realistically ever going to become a mainstream working practice, or remain on the fringes, suitable only for a mere handful of industries?

One major advocate is job site Four Day Week, which is focused on this type of role and others offering flexible working more broadly. Co-founder David Barrett believes the benefits are “multifaceted”.

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The pandemic has prompted a year of flexible working trials, according to David Barrett, co-founder of Four Day Week (file image). Picture: Peter Summers/Getty Images.

He cites a major trial that found a reduction in stress and anxiety among staff – as well as helping parents divide childcare, accelerating the shrinking of the gender pay gap. “In general, a four-day week would also provide more time for 'life admin' and time to spend with their families, which is only a good thing. This all points towards more enjoyment, commitment and efficiency in the workplace.”

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Mr Barrett also says there are environmental benefits such as fewer emissions from commuting. “We would also hope to see less unemployment as a result of more positions becoming available [due to] the hours no longer being worked.”

He also says firms report increased productivity – while staff are less likely to take sick days. Indeed, Advice Direct Scotland – which operates Scotland’s national advice service – noted that absenteeism dropped by an “astonishing” 77 per cent in the wake of all staff moving to a four-day week in 2018.

Mr Barrett adds that several companies, including Scottish-headquartered Pursuit Marketing, have reported higher profitability as a result of working fewer hours too.

Pursuit, which says it has pioneered a four-day working week for its employees in Glasgow and London since 2016, states that the success of a four-day week at its base in Malaga, Spain, had led to interaction with the Spanish government as it takes the first steps of a pilot looking at its introduction in the country.

Lorraine Gray, director at the firm, said: “Our four-day week has been such a success over the past five years, but this is only one chunk of the flexible working package. There is no doubt that the last year has led to many businesses reassessing how they can provide colleagues with greater work-life balance and we’ve been pleased to speak to other employers who have asked us to share our experiences. The resistance to flexible working in Scotland, which was being slowly chipped away, has now fallen sharply.”

The Scottish company’s comments come as the FlexForLife report is published by Flexibility Works – a social enterprise backed by the Scottish Government and The Hunter Foundation – which has found that nearly four out of five employers say Covid has permanently changed how, when and where we work.

Lisa Gallagher, co‑founder of Flexibility Works, deems Pursuit a “shining light” in Scotland in regards to flexible working. “Their four-day working week has been so successful for them and their employees, with people reporting being happier, healthier, more engaged and productive. It does not surprise me that they are offering the same approach to colleagues in Spain and we wish the company well in the next stage of this journey.”

Other Scottish firms to pursue a four-day week include tech firm Administrate and communications agency Wonderhouse, which are both based in Edinburgh.

That said, adopting a shorter-than-standard working week is not suitable in every instance. Emma Stewart is co-founder and development director at flexible working consultancy Timewise, whose clients include Google, Tesco and HSBC. She says the challenge with implementing a blanket four-day week “without careful consideration is that not everyone wants the same flexible working solutions, nor does the same always work in every role”.

Consideration

Many issues need to be considered, she adds, such as whether a four-day week means a firm will reduce pay accordingly – and not everyone can afford such a move. She also says it might work well in a creative agency or other knowledge-based environment, but is more complex in occupations such as teaching or nursing. “The conversation about the four-day week is a really important one, but we need to remember that some people want to work less, others need to work more, particularly those in low-paid, part-time jobs – and some just need more control and autonomy to choose.”

Timewise is keen to emphasise what can be achieved in fewer than full-time hours, for those that this suits, today publishing data showing that 72 per cent of people in the UK now believe part-time workers should have equal opportunity to progress at work.

It commissioned the study to celebrate the publication of the ninth annual Timewise Power List – which celebrates people who achieve huge success in their senior jobs, all on four days a week or fewer, such as Kate Gibson, global director of society at Diageo.

Mr Barrett believes the pandemic has “without doubt” accelerated the concept of a four-day week – although he acknowledges that other forms of flexible working are more popular, such as remote working or a “hybrid” mix of remote and in the office. “Many of the companies that list with us are actually very open to how their new employee works. They want them to guide them as to what works best, which is a great forward step.”

Ms Stewart says that in Scotland, as per the rest of the UK, there is increasing acceptance amongst businesses that flexible working is here to stay. “The pandemic has shown it’s possible and that people want to retain some form of flexibility... We need to capitalise on this and ensure that we encourage employers to be more open to different kinds of flexible working. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution.”

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