WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
For a long time now people have focused too much on how long you work rather than your actual productivity, so new trials are testing old theories.
The world of work is changing, whether it’s work from home, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) and RPA bots after our jobs, or whether it’s companies and people playing around with digital humans and tele-operations technologies. Recently though some have been thinking less about technology and more about less time at work, and now hot on the heels of a four day work week experiment in Iceland, more than 3,000 workers at 60 companies in the UK will take part in a coordinated, six month trial of a four day working week, marking the world’s biggest pilot scheme for a shorter work week so far.
Organised by 4 Day Week Global in partnership with think tank Autonomy and the 4 Day Week UK Campaign, the trial will see all 60 firms – including a number of technology companies – adopt a reduced working week with no loss of pay from June to December 2022.
Previously, the biggest four-day week trial to date was run in Iceland by Reykjavík City Council and the national government, which included more than 2,500 workers. It found that productivity either remained the same or improved in the majority of workplaces involved.
During the UK trial, researchers from Cambridge University, Oxford University and Boston College will work with the participating companies to measure the impacts of working four days in a range of areas, including employee productivity and wellbeing, the environment, and gender equality.
“Increasingly, managers and executives are embracing a new model of work which focuses on quality of outputs, not quantity of hours. Workers have emerged from the pandemic with different expectations around what constitutes a healthy work-life balance,” said Joe O’Connor, CEO of 4 Day Week Global.
“Sometimes it takes a big disruptor to dislodge deeply embedded societal and cultural norms. That’s what we are seeing with the traditional five-day working week following the Covid-induced flexible working revolution. Those who think we will turn the clock back to the way things were two years ago are engaged in ‘pie in the sky’ thinking – the four-day week is an idea whose time has come.”
One of the tech-related companies taking part in the trial is Stemettes, a social enterprise set up to helps girls and young women pursues careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Speaking with Reuters, Anne-Marie Imafidon, founder and CEO of Stemettes, said the organisation’s move to a four-day week was “a logical evolution” of what it is already doing.
“Whether it’s matching up to 8% [pension] contribution for our staff, our well-being days, or our menstrual leave policy…we’re wanting to be pioneering, but also wanting to meet needs and see our employees as human beings,” she said.
Imafidon added the tech sector in particular is well-placed to benefit from a four-day week because of the huge variety of digital tools available: “For us, working a four-day work week is only going to be possible because of our tech-savvy [employees] and because of our use of digital tools, because of the way we can automate certain things or build certain workflows.
“The technology industry itself is probably the best place to be able to take advantage of something like this and really have no disruption to work, because we know how to use the tools to be able to get more done in less time.”
Leanne Kemp, founder and CEO of digital supply chain transparency firm Everledger, said the company – which already has a formal four-day work week for its staff in the US – was keen to be involved in the UK trial because it could help “systematise” its approach.
She added that because the company already works in the blockchain space, the ethos of using consensus-based decision-making to agree on technical approaches nicely mirrors the type of organising needed to implement a four-day work week.
“We’ve already seen staff more proactive time to think about how they’d like to work differently, and they’ve been more forward in encouraging others to come up with their own measures of productivity,” she said. “There also seems to be a collective spirit around how they can organise time off within each other’s teams and those cross-functional teams, while still meeting the business and the customer imperatives.”
Kemp added that the four day week also set employees up for a more “contained and focused” work week.
“It sets us down to define very clear goals and ensure that they’re achievable within a more focused time span and deliberate set of actions,” she said. “We’ve become significantly more disciplined around how we measure outcomes, and not just the hours worked.”
For Imafidon, the main concern with the trial is the productivity gain, and whether it will be a lot, or just enough to cover the fact people are trying to do 100% of the work in 80% of the time: “I’m pretty confident because a lot of the team are part time already, but I think it’s going to be interesting to see the productivity gain.”
She added that, on the flipside, the social aspects of working at Stemettes could be undermined if “everyone is having to pedal to the metal” to get things done: “How do we balance that? How do we make sure people still feel engaged and still have the good times, rather than purely just the work time?”
However, to overcome this, Imafidon said Stemettes was in the process of “baselining” to figure out its current outputs and level of service, as well as employee happiness, so that it can measure whether these levels are maintained during the trial.
“We are hoping for higher happiness, higher job satisfaction and a lot less stress – having more time for rest is important [and should mean] less burn out,” she said. “The same way you need to take a rest day for your muscles, you need to take a rest day for your brain. I wonder whether that’s also going to help to contribute and bring more creativity into the team, more innovation, more space for learning and development and growth – that will help us to do more, and have a higher quality of service, with less.”
A total of 78 organisations in the UK – including Autonomy – are already accredited under the 4 Day Week Campaign’s accreditation scheme. This includes a number of tech-related firms, such as Formedix, a provider of clinical trial software that automates the end-to-end clinical trial design and build process for pharmaceutical firms.
Speaking with Reuters, Formedix digital marketing executive Simona Colucci said that the company started working four-day weeks in 2019 after a six-week trial.
She added that, in the wake of the trial, the company sent out anonymous questionnaires to gauge its workforce’s reaction: “100% of the staff said that they wanted to make the four-day week permanent, and out of this 89% said it increased their job satisfaction, which is huge, while 94% said it gave them a better work-life balance as well.
“It was quite powerful, so obviously we made the decision to do it full time. They also asked some questions about productivity, as they needed to make sure it didn’t impact negatively – 45% of people said that productivity was the same, and 55% actually said it increased their productivity.”
On her own experience of working four days a week, Colucci said it has “been absolutely amazing in terms of productivity. Because you know you’ve got four days, you just put all your effort in, and then you know that you have a decent break every week.”
Meanwhile, Jack Kellam, lead editor at Autonomy, said the culture of long working hours has taken its toll on workers around the world, but particularly those in the UK, who experience “chronic crises of overwork and burnout” that lead to “extensive days lost” each year to either sickness or presenteeism – the need to be performatively present at work despite being disengaged or unwell.
He added that although people have been predicting and expecting far shorter working weeks since at least the start of the 20th century, historical increases in productivity over recent decades have been translated into “profit for shareholders and management rather than increased free time for workers”.
This is in line with observations made by the late anthropologist, David Graeber, in his 2018 book Bullshit Jobs: “A hundred years ago, many assumed that the steady advance of technology and labor-saving devices would have made this [shorter working week] possible by now, and the irony is that they were probably right.
“We could easily all be putting in a twenty or even fifteen hour work week. Yet for some reason, we as a society have collectively decided it’s better to have millions of human beings spending years of their lives pretending to type into spreadsheets or preparing mind maps for PR meetings than freeing them to knit sweaters, play with their dogs, start a garage band, experiment with new recipes, or sit in cafés arguing about politics.”
Graeber added that despite the fact many productive jobs having been largely automated away, “rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects…we have seen the ballooning…of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations.”
To help overcome these cultural issues around attitudes to work, Kellam said that any official introduction of a four day week should also be accompanied by a statutory right to disconnect, which would allow employees to ignore work-related communications such as emails and texts outside their contracted working hours.
From the perspective of business owners, Kellam further said one of the most common arguments he hears against a four day week is that employees are unable to contribute the same amount of work in a shorter time, which is, in turn, underpinned by the idea that time worked is equal to the amount produced.
“People sometimes have a hard time to separate it, but actually a more focused, shorter period of time working…where you’re better rested and mentally engaged, [means] you can actually potentially do far more,” he said. “That’s just because of a deeply ingrained ‘work ethic’ we’ve inherited for quite a long time in our societies. And it’s quite difficult to overcome that at times.”
The other major argument Kellam comes across from enterprises against four day weeks is that it is untenable to have the business shut down for a day each week, something that is particularly acute for companies in sectors such as cyber security where “switching off” is not necessarily an option.
In response to such arguments, Kellam added that while for some businesses shutting down for a day will accrue other benefits in terms of better worker productivity or staff retention, there are some simple solutions that businesses can adopt if they want to remain open for five days, such as the introduction of a better rota system or hiring additional staff.
Kemp said that, from her experience of a four-day week at Everledger, while there can be problems for global companies in organising work across time zones in rigid Monday to Thursday or Tuesday to Friday schedules, this can be overcome by structuring work time “like a global relay race” over time zones.
“It doesn’t have to stick as a rigid four day work week, it could be appreciating the reduction in hours over a flexible five days,” she said.
Kellam added that many of the 60 companies joining the trial now see attractive working hours and environments as a means of drawing in new talent: “If you’re concerned about the performance of your business, reducing working hours is a key way to do it, particularly in the context of people talking about a “Great Resignation” and people struggling to hire workers.”
Colucci said that a major reason Formedix even attempted a four day week in the first place was for the attraction and retention of talent, which has paid off.
“We have no plans to change back [to a five day week],” she said. “If people have more time off, they’re happier, and then they’re just more motivated, which turned out to be exactly the case.”
In terms of the benefits on a wider societal level, Kellam said a four-day week would have a “direct effect” on carbon emissions in a number of ways, including from reduced electricity consumption in offices, potentially reduced commuting, and people switching to “slower forms of active travel” such as riding a bike when they do commute because of lessened time pressures.
In May 2021, a study conducted by the environmental organisation Platform London and the 4 Day Week Campaign found that moving the UK to a four-day week by 2025 would shrink the country’s emissions by 127 million tonnes – a reduction of more than 20% and equivalent to taking the entire private car fleet off the road.
Kellam added that it could also help reshape gendered divisions of labour in the home: “A four day work week is not a single solution to patriarchal division of labour. However, we saw it in Iceland, but also anecdotally too, that often giving workers potentially more time to be involved at home can help encourage a greater division of household labour or caring responsibilities for children.”