UK 4-day work week trial finds few going back to 5 days

None of the 2,900 participants in a study said they wanted to ditch the four-day arrangement, and 15% even said that no amount of extra money could make them return to five days. — Reuters

NEW YORK: 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 pause the experiment, and two are still considering shorter hours, according to data released yesterday. 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,” said lead researcher Juliet Schor, an economist and sociologist at Boston College.

Her research has long found that five-day work weeks no longer fit the lifestyles and commitments of modern employees, particularly caregivers.

“The organisations did a great job, and they’re really happy with it.”

The United Kingdom data strongly confirms the findings of smaller trials whose results were released in December by companies based in the United States, 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 minor – nothing worth discussing.”

The UK results are the second major data release in an ongoing series of four-day tests coordinated by Four-Day Week Global, a New Zealand-based nonprofit 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 training and planning, meaning that leaders are biased towards championing shorter work schedules.

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 lives.

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 wanted to ditch the four-day arrangement, and 15% 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 that plenty of people in the UK actually want to work more hours.

Many see that as a lifeline to boosting their earnings in the cost-of-living crisis, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), a body for human resources 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 labour market economist at the CIPD.

“The big risk is that a 20% reduction in hours requires a 25% increase in productivity to keep output steady.”

The fresh UK results help make that business case for the four-day week. Organisational revenue was up 35% from a year earlier and rose by 1.4% during the trial.

Though multi-company 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 two 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 at 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.

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 workweek as a new weapon in the battle for talent.

Despite the fact that there were few vacancies, the number of people sending their CVs to Tyler Grange nearly doubled after the trial began.

“The four-day week is a key strategy for employee attraction and retention,” the organisation said in a statement.

Nonprofits and professional services employees saw larger gains in time spent exercising, while construction workers saw the greatest benefits around sleep issues and burnout, the UK trial results showed.

Women in particular benefitted from the extra day off. While both genders reported better outcomes, females experienced greater boosts in life and job satisfaction.

It’s also shifting household dynamics as men report taking on more childcare and housework, though they still do not carry a 50% share.

Still, when it comes to the link between days worked and flexibility, some are sceptical that less is more.

“You lose flexibility with four days,” said Matthew Crummack, chief executive officer at Domestic and General, which provides insurance and repair 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% of the UK workforce that 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.

“In the end, businesses have little to lose by experimenting,” said CIPD’s Boys. “For most businesses, money talks.” — Bloomberg

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UK , workplace , fourdayweek , trial , research , revenue , productivity


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