Can we make the four-day week work? Productivity Puzzles blog
Is the five-day work week becoming something of the past? Does working less make us and the organisation we work for better off? Could it even make us more productive if we do it right? In other words: how do we make the four-day work week work?
Productivity Puzzles host Professor Bart van Ark was joined three experts in the field of the four-day week to discuss what it might mean for productivity in Season 2, Episode 4 of The Productivity Institute’s podcast:
- Nina Jörden Research Associate with the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge.
- Joe Ryle Director of the 4 Day Week Campaign and Media and Communications Lead at Autonomy.
- Jon Boys Senior Labour Market Economist at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.
What is the four-day work week?
The four-day week is often used as a catchphrase for various models relating to a meaningful reduction in work time without loss of pay. The principle is 100:80:100; 100% pay, 80% hours and 100% output. The models discussed in the podcast are:
- Friday off The standard approach is to shut operations for one day of the work week, which is typically Friday.
- Staggered The organisation aims to maintain five-day coverage, with staff working different shift patterns. Some departments might take Wednesdays off, while others take Mondays off, for example.
- Five shorter days Some workers opt for the flexibility of working five shorter days in a week.
The benefits of the four-day work week
The podcast discussed three strands of the benefits of the four-day week:
- Benefits for workers The podcast discusses the results detailed in the Autonomy report (link), including an improvement in well-being and mental health, with employees experiencing less negative stress, lower levels of burnout, and improved sleep.
- Benefits for organisations Offering a four-day week to employees is a significant boon for recruitment and retention for organisation as it is highly valued by workers. In the podcast, Jon Boys discusses the results of the CIPD survey on flexible working and forecasts that, if 32-hour or 34-hour contracts become standard, offering 38-hour contracts could severely impact recruitment.
- Benefits for society “It could make a huge difference to society”, says Joe Ryle on the podcast. He says more free time may allow people to live more environmentally sustainable lives, or may give more opportunity to volunteer in their local community, helping to revitalise community spirit in the UK. Nina Jorden said a four-day week has the potential to improve gender equality by reducing the double burden that is often borne by women with household responsibilities and destigmatise part-time work.
The productivity effects from a shorter working week
Two-thirds of employers surveyed by the CIPD agree that productivity will have to increase to make shorter working hours possible while retaining pay.
Reducing work time by 20% and keeping productivity at the same level would require a 25% increase in hourly productivity. Given the productivity growth slowdown in recent years, how can this be achieved?
One simple factor, says Jon Boys, is the diminishing returns to productivity throughout the week. A worker is quite fresh on a Monday, but maybe less so on a Friday afternoon. If you shave off Friday afternoon, it would probably increase the hourly productivity rate, Jon says.
The podcast episode also included discussion of Nina’s ongoing data analysis of South Cambridgeshire District Council’s four-day week trial. She suggests that, anecdotally, it has led to higher motivation and engagement amongst employees. It has triggered people to think differently about how work was completed, leading to a rethinking of work practices. These changes could be catalysts for significant team- or organisation-level productivity improvements.
The move towards a more output-focused way of working could be key, says Joe on the podcast. If the ability of people at work was measured on output and what was delivered at the end of the week, the number of hours being worked becomes quite arbitrary.
Best practices to raise productivity
In the final portion of the podcast, Bart and the guests discuss practical experiences and tips on raising productivity per hour. Nina points to the increase in focus time that has stemmed from South Cambridgeshire District Council’s four-day week trial. As some workers were off on Mondays and others were off on Fridays, this led to Tuesday to Thursday becoming core times for meetings, resulting in either a quiet Monday or a quiet Friday where employees could prioritise in-depth work without disruptions.
Additionally, as part of the 4 Day Week Campaign’s pilot across multiple companies, they highlighted the removal of extraneous meetings that didn’t contribute to organisation outcomes. Meanwhile, technology and digitalisation can also be harnessed to boost productivity with the introduction of new communications technology, which first became prevalent during the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, these new norms in the way we work, such as providing focus time to employees and allowing working from home, are very much output-orientated, which requires a higher level of trust between employer and employee, Jon states on the podcast. More trust is required because measuring inputs is far easier than outputs, particularly in a services-based economy, he says.
For more information
- To find out more, listen to Can we make the four-day week work? which is available on The Productivity Institute website, or wherever you get your podcasts.
- To find out more about creating better measures of productivity in a business and ensuring that goals are aligned across different facets of a business, read Strategic Productivity for the Leadership Team from The Productivity Institute.
- To find out more about how gender equality can create a more productive economy, read Gender and Productivity by Jill Rubery, Isabelle Bi and Anthony Rafferty.
- To find out more about outcome-based productivity, read Making Public Sector Productivity Practical by Bart van Ark