The employer’s guide to the four-day working week

29 July 2021

Employers can use innovative ways of working that differentiate their organisation to engage their current workforce and retain and attract talent. Flexible ways of working can also foster a positive company culture, which is key to a successful business. Some employers believe that a four-day working week (4DWW) is a powerful way to shape a positive workplace. The 4DWW is being trialled in several countries, including the UK. Belgium is reportedly planning to make a 4DWW the default entitlement, and employers there will have to justify having a longer working week.

Features of the UK trial

The 4DWW is 32 hours or less. Note that a standard working week of 35 to 40 hours worked over four days instead of five is not a four-day week – that is considered to be a five-day week with compressed hours, resulting in four long workdays.

There is no reduction in pay. Employees receive 100 per cent of the pay for 80 per cent of the time, in exchange for maintaining 100 per cent productivity.

Possible benefits of the 4DWW

  • Improved staff wellbeing.
  • Boosted productivity.
  • Greater innovation by staff.
  • Talent attraction and retention.
  • Reduced sickness absence cost and business disruption.
  • Ability to demonstrate to stakeholders that the organisation is forward-thinking, ethical, and socially responsible.
  • Improved sustainability. There is an argument that workers will be able to reduce their ecological footprints by not commuting and generating less waste (eg from packaged sandwiches and take away coffees) on the non-working day.
  • Being carer friendly – for employees who have caring responsibilities, is especially important.
  • More gender equality – the 4DWW may create a more equal share of paid and unpaid work, including caring roles traditionally undertaken by women.
  • Greater community engagement – how an employee uses their fifth day each week is up to them, but the opportunity to contribute in a more meaningful way to their local communities is often cited in favour of the 4DWW.

Advocates of the 4DWW say it brings:

  • Awareness – a greater awareness among staff of their workloads and time management is critical to scheduling, budgeting, and delivering time-dependent projects.
  • Balance – learning to balance work alongside other aspects of life encourages sustainable and consistent performance.
  • Productivity – what we do in our free time inevitably affects our work, so allowing staff the time to pursue their own interests, socialise and gain new skills and knowledge can create a more engaged, enthusiastic and productive workforce.

Changing to a 4DWW

As with any workplace change, thorough pre-planning and staff consultation are key. Different organisations will go about this differently. However, keeping the benefits in mind during planning will help organisations to design their own bespoke 4DWW in a way that best secures its goals and suits its workforce.

Clarity in communicating what is planned and listening to workforce feedback are key. There is little point in having a perfectly designed scheme that the staff relish, but that clients, customers and suppliers find unworkable. Nor is there much point to a client-friendly scheme that overburdens the workforce.

Many organisations will opt for trialling the 4DWW in a particular team or department, rather than immediately rolling it out across the organisation everyone. The trial should be collaboratively designed by staff and management.

A clear assessment of the successes and drawbacks need to be evaluated and communicated before organisations decide whether to make the 4DWW change permanent and/or extend it across the workforce.

How can busy people make the change to a 4DWW?

The key is to reduce inefficient use of time. Consider:

  • cutting out unnecessary meetings;
  • halving the standard length of meetings;
  • reducing unnecessary email traffic;
  • setting dedicated focus times. Some organisations may find it feasible to encourage staff to set aside two 30-minute windows in the day to answer their emails. The rest of the day should be focused on core tasks and activities;
  • suggesting that employees keep their personal mobiles away from their desks to avoid distraction during their focused time;
  • ensuring job descriptions and appraisals focus on outcomes rather than tasks;
  • reviewing job descriptions and remove unnecessary tasks that take up large amounts of time but do not contribute to the organisational goals the individual in the role is expected to achieve;
  • using more connected, flexible, and inclusive communications tools; and
  • experimenting with new forms of task management tools that bring a team’s work together in one shared workspace.

What happens with holiday entitlement and holiday pay?

Holiday allowances will need to be considered during any trial period. An amendment may not be necessary if the contract states the holiday allowance is in weeks. However, where the holiday allowance is stated in days or hours it will need to be temporarily reduced, otherwise the worker will be contractually entitled to the same amount of holiday despite the additional day off each week.

Employment contracts should therefore be checked to establish if a temporary variation is required. Assuming the employer introduces the 4DWW with no reduction in pay, in theory holiday pay should not change.

Should sick pay entitlements reduce?

Again, both statutory sick pay and any additional contractual sick pay tends to be measured in working hours, days, or weeks. It will be critical for employers to ensure they are aware which applies in order to manage both employees’ expectations and their own costs.

If there are fewer contracted working days, this may result in a greater sick pay cost for those on longer term sick leave. For example, for a full-time, five-day a week employee an entitlement to ten working days’ sick leave will translate to two working weeks’ sick pay. For a 4DWW pattern, however, it will amount to 2.5 weeks’ pay unless it is adjusted.

But this needs to be considered alongside the intended benefits of a 4DWW in terms of:

  • reduced absenteeism;
  • increased productivity;
  • better customer service; and
    increased job retention (thereby helping to avoid expensive recruitment drives).

Other paid leave

Where other paid leave is expressed in periods of a week, the days comprised within the week will be reduced but the pay entitlement will not be. Therefore the impact on other paid leave ought to be neutral.

Part-time workers

One would expect that those working part-time will benefit most from the move to a 4DWW because they will likely earn more for the same hours. However, that assumes the employer implements the 4DWW on that basis. If the pay, benefits, and holidays of those working part-time are not inflated because of moving to a 4DWW, that will likely give rise to employee relations issues and, possibly, claims of unfavourable treatment of part-time workers.

The impact on agreed flexible working patterns will also need to be carefully considered to avoid detriment to employees who have already changed their working patterns to accommodate their caring responsibilities.

Measuring productivity will be key to success

Measures of productivity will very much depend on a business’s specific requirements. For some businesses it will be a pure revenue metric, for others it may be the number of units sold or the number of customers won. The key is to ensure that, whatever the metric, a baseline is set before embarking on a four-day week.

If you would like to discuss the benefits and key considerations of moving to a four-day working week, please contact Carolyn Brown or Kerri Constable.