The pros and cons of a four-day working week

Think-tank says shift in working patterns could help alleviate the cost-of-living crisis

A woman at work at Ernst & Young
Trials have found that a four-day week boosts productivity
(Image credit: Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)

A four-day week with no loss of pay could help ease the cost-of-living crisis by slashing workers’ childcare and commuting costs, a left-wing think-tank has argued.

Independent research organisation Autonomy calculated that a worker with a child aged under two would save £1,440 year in childcare on average, and £340 on travel if they cut their weekly commutes by a day. Director of research Will Stronge told The Guardian that a four-day week “could play a crucial role in supporting workers to make ends meet” with UK inflation at a 40-year high.

Stronge also argued that a shorter working week could boost productivity and the “wellbeing of workers”. But while more than 3,300 staff at 70 UK companies are working four-day weeks after signing up for a six-month trial, launched in June, critics claim the shift could have various costs.

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1. Pro: greater productivity

The UK trial currently taking place has indicated that productivity can actually be improved when staff work fewer hours.

At the halfway point of the trial, 41 of the 73 companies taking part responded to a survey. “The majority of firms said it is working well for their business, while 95% said productivity had stayed the same or improved during the shorter week,” said the BBC.

More than four-fifths of the companies who responded “said they would keep the four-day week policy going after the trial ends”, the broadcaster added.

This backs up a finding in 2019. Back then Microsoft Japan gave its 2,300-strong workforce five Fridays off in a row without cutting pay and found that productivity “increased by 39.9% compared with August 2018”, Business Insider reported.

2. Con: longer hours

Some employers have questioned whether certain roles can realistically be performed over just four days per week. The Wellcome Trust ditched plans in 2019 to trial a four-day week for the research foundation’s 800 staff on the grounds that it would be too “operationally complex”.

“In reality,” said Breathe on the HR platform’s blog, “most employees on a four-day week will most likely be expected to work the same 40-hour weeks, but in four days instead of five”. And extending shifts “could have a significant effect on your employees’ stress levels and therefore their overall well-being and productivity”.

3. Pro: better for childcare

Research carried out this year by parenting organisations Pregnant Then Screwed and Mumsnet found that “43% of mums said the cost of childcare has made them consider leaving their job and 40% said they have had to work fewer hours than they would like because of childcare costs”.

In the survey of almost 27,000 parents, more than 60% said childcare costs are now as much or more than their rent or mortgage payments.

A four-day week could allow for fairer sharing of childcare between men and women. Parents of young children won’t have to pay for so many hours of childcare and, according to Female First, they would be able to “spend more quality time with their kids”.

4. Con: team management

Line managers sometimes find that managing multiple teams on a four-day work week can be challenging “because the days employees take off are scattered, making it hard to set up team meetings and manage projects,” said a report for The Adecco Group.

There will be “knock-on effects on the rest of the team if everyone is just shifting their meeting times to one less day a week, or worse, if people are taking different days off from each other,” Constance Hadley, a Questrom School of Business lecturer in management and organisations, told BU Today.

5. Pro: cut carbon footprint

Countries with shorter working hours typically “have a smaller carbon footprint”, said Change, because trimming the working week means that workers don’t need to commute as much and large office buildings are only in use four days a week.

More than half of UK workers drive themselves to work. But research carried out by the University of Reading in 2019 found that working four days a week instead of five “could decrease the number of miles driven by employees travelling to work by 558 million each week”, Forbes reported.

Overall, the site suggested, a four-day week “could shrink the U.K.’s carbon footprint by 127 million tonnes per year by 2025”, which would represent “a reduction of 21.3% from 2020”.

6. Con: only short-term gain

“It’s true that employees who worked four days a week were happier with their autonomy, personal worth and job security than those who worked a five-day work week,” said People Hum, “but when employees were polled again after 25 months, nearly all admitted that the improvements had vanished.”

If an organisation introduces the four-day working week, employee morale will undoubtedly rise, it added, but levels of morale will “gradually return to pre-4-day workweek levels after the ‘newness’ wears off”.

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