A four-day working week could be the new reality: can employers make it ‘work’?

Early signs suggest they can – but as six-month long trials of a four-day working week kicked in, in June 2022 across several different sectors in the UK, it begs the question for employers whether, in reality, the cons of grappling with yet another new way of working could outweigh the pros.

What is the four-day working week?

National trials of a shorter, four-day working week commenced on 6 June 2022, trailing several calls throughout the pandemic to shorten the working week (traditionally five-days long). 30 or so companies in the UK have taken the plunge, with around 3,000 employees taking part in this pilot scheme run by the “4 Day Week Campaign” – an initiative launched by researchers at Cambridge and Oxford University, together with Boston College.

The aim: to deploy the 100:80:100 working model for 6 months and measure whether employees on 100 per cent of pay for 80 per cent of the time, maintain 100 per cent productivity. The UK follows Iceland, Ireland, and Canada, who have all run similar trials. It has been suggested in commentary that the real purpose behind the trial is to test whether employees’ responses to a three-day weekend reduce employee absences owing to work-related stress and improve the working world’s mental health generally.

Many employees in the UK do already work flexibly and across four days on compressed hours. The four-day working week doesn’t encompass compressed hours however, but rather reduced hours over four days, on the same pay and with a three-day weekend.

Pros v cons

A report detailing the outcome of the trials should follow once the scheme concludes in November 2022.

Whilst we will not have a proper inkling of how effective a shorter working week is until then, there are a host of potential advantages employers should keep in mind when looking to a future with a possibly shortened working week. For one, a shorter working week could increase productivity – with the studies in Iceland showing a demonstrable increase in productivity across workforces there. The ‘four-day’ working week can also boost the employer’s ESG (mainly in respect of the social tranche) by potentially championing a healthier and more sustainable work-life balance for sectors which are renowned for having the opposite. This can obviously only work in practice where employers are on board in terms of meaningfully promoting this and its expectations of employees and their output is commensurate to what they can actually and reasonably achieve in a shorter working week. Undue pressure on employees to complete work outside of working hours following the loss of a fifth working day could lead to resentment and grievances and could be counterproductive.

A reduced working week could also herald a change in the inequality between men and women in respect of childcare and help promote women and men to split their working weeks and childcare responsibilities more evenly – potentially making the working arena better adjusted to the need for equal treatment for mothers.

Longer term benefits and potential knock-on effects of increased productivity could include improved staff retention rates – which is key for employers and sectors which thrive off retaining talent (for example, sales sectors). Improved morale could see a reduction in workplace spats, issues, or litigation.

There is a large degree of uncertainty clouding these trials, however. The biggest question faced by employers, if the trials prove effective, is how a four-day working week would be implemented in practice.

Contractual variations to employment contract clauses covering employees’ hours and days of work would be needed (in respect of which, legal advice should always be taken as to how to best go about amending terms). Workplace policies may need to be updated to account for a shorter working week. Consideration needs to be given to whether any class of employees could be disadvantaged by the change (for example, part-time or flexibly working employees, whose hours may already be pro rata’d – many of whom are disabled employees, or women). How will this affect employees who require specific days off due to caring responsibilities or for religious reasons? How can employers deal with those who resist the potential changes and do not agree to vary their hours and days of work?

The real risk undermining the above questions is that any mistake in implementing this change could open the floor to employment claims, such as claims for breach of contract or discrimination.

As we say, a report is not expected until early next year and following the conclusion of the trials in November 2022. Knowing the Government’s regrettably often slap dash approach to employment law changes, the above questions may remain unanswered in any policy overhaul.

Think forward

Whilst there is nothing for employers to really do for now except wait – we say, thinking forward about ways to best prepare your workforce for any prospective change or ways in which you can achieve the benefits set out above without the loss of a working day, may be worthwhile.

For companies who are undergoing the trial and or for employers who may want advice on any of the issues raised above generally, do not hesitate to contact our employment team for specialist, hands-on advice (employment@curzongreen.co.uk).

The information set out in this article is true as at the time of writing. Please always consult the latest Government Guidance and legislation, which will be decisive in any event.