The future of the four-day work week is looking brighter after the results of a major new study were released last month.
Nearly 3,000 workers at over 60 organizations took part in the latest trial of reduced working time — and the findings surpassed most expectations. A large majority of workers reported significant improvements in their quality of life. And it wasn’t just employees who preferred the shorter working week: more than 90% of employers who participated opted to continue the arrangement.
The U.K.-based experiment introduced a four-day week or equivalent cut in hours, with no loss of pay, from June to December 2022. Research teams at Boston College, Cambridge University and the London think tank Autonomy studied the effects. Overall, workers reported lower levels of stress and burn out, higher job satisfaction and less conflict between work and family demands. They also said they felt more capable at work and better able to manage their time.
Almost all (96%) said they preferred working four days and most put a high value on their new free time. Asked how much money would persuade them to return to a five-day week, 29% said they would want a 26-50% pay increase, while 8% wanted more than 50% and another 15% said no amount of money would lure them back.
Employers benefited as well. Compared with the pre-trial period, there were fewer staff resignations and days off for illness. Revenues saw a slight increase. Asked to score their experience on a scale from 0 (negative) to 10 (positive), the average among employers was 7.5 for productivity and 8.3 overall.
One likely reason for the trial’s success is that it recognized there was no one-size-fits-all formula. Each organization could choose its own approach to work time reduction so long as it offered significant reductions without loss of pay. The trial was also meticulously prepared, with two months of workshops, coaching, mentoring and peer support, drawing on experience from earlier pilots in more than 100 companies in the United States, U.K., Australia, Canada and Ireland. This approach was geared to help participants improve well-being and economic prosperity at the same time — by designing new working practices and changing company culture.
The trial took place during a pitched moment in history, as evolving digital communications combined with a global pandemic to wreak havoc on the concept of “normal” employment. More employees than ever could work anytime and anywhere with a suitable device and internet signal. And most everyone who took part had fresh memories of when workplaces closed down, human proximity seemed lift-threatening and online meetings redefined personal interaction.
In some ways, the Covid pandemic gave the four-day week a boost by forcing companies to adapt to new ways of thinking and working. One manager of a manufacturing company in the UK trial observed, “I think we have come out of the pandemic with a new outlook on life… There’s a greater expectation around flexible working, hybrid working — people are taking that opportunity to think ‘I want to do something completely different.’”
Yet that new outlook brings new challenges. For example, companies will have to work out how to reconcile a shorter working week and the search for compensating efficiencies with the value of time to bond with coworkers, release tensions and test ideas. Isolation is a well-known cause of mental and physical illness, which in turn can take a heavy toll on productivity.
There’s a trade-off between a four-day work week that is more intensively output-focused, and to what degree workers are able to relax and make friends. As the report points out, the next wave of adopters can learn from a growing base of organizations that are already ironing out the four-day week in practice, “adapting different models and structures to the demands of their own size and sector and building up a toolkit of tips and tactics.”
Notably, most organizations in the U.K. trial were relatively small and workers were predominantly white and well-educated. Some were in manufacturing but the majority were in white-collar, non-profit and creative sectors that depend on human capital more than on machines and unskilled labor. That’s not surprising, but it signals a risk of greater inequality, with workers in other sectors falling behind in low-paid jobs with long hours and few options to free up more time, while white-collar workers take advantage of the shorter week.
The last time there was a big shift towards shorter working hours, in the first half of the 20th century, trade unions were out in front pushing for an eight-hour day, a five-day week and paid holidays. Over time, they built up pressure on governments to legislate, so that new standards for working hours applied (at least in principle) across sectors and income groups.
The current campaign, 4 Day Week Global, was initiated not by trade unions but by Andrew Barnes, managing director of a New Zealand finance company, who (rightly) thought it would help increase productivity in a firm like his. Many unions support the campaign, but they are largely following rather than leading. It’s the reverse of what happened more than a century ago, when some employers (Ford and Kellogg for example) gave crucial support to the union campaign by cutting their workers’ hours.
Today, pioneering employers like Barnes can show that it’s possible to cut hours without cutting pay or productivity — an admirable goal. The campaign is making headway, judging by the results of this study as well as the growing number of organizations joining in implementing the shorter week.
But the larger challenge will be to transform the success of self-selected early adopters into a right for all workers. And a statutory four-day week (or equivalent in hours) would have to be tied to a right to fair hourly wage rates, to protect those on lower incomes from being pushed further into poverty.
It’s hard to imagine how governments will be persuaded to legislate for these rights without pressure from organized workers. And unions are fighting other battles — for members’ living standards as inflation slashes the real value of wages, for jobs at risk from automation, and for their own right to organize and negotiate for workers in the gig economy and new tech sectors.
Two developments could help tip the balance in favor of a four day week. One is a growing awareness of how a better work-life balance can contribute to a more prosperous economy. The other is an increasing momentum to decarbonize the economy, which is bound to lead to a fall in jobs in energy intensive sectors and could strengthen the case for redistributing paid hours more evenly across the workforce. Both could help build support for reduced working time.
Until that happens, there is likely to be a widening gap between the time-rich and time-poor, where time poverty — a chronic shortage of free or disposable time — routinely adds to the burden of low-income workers.
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Anna Coote is head of social policy for the New Economics Foundation. A leading analyst, writer and advocate in the field of social policy, Anna is a co-author of The Case for a Four Day Week.