The 9am-5pm, five-day working week was created almost a century ago, when Henry Ford created ‘the weekend’ by giving his workers Saturdays and Sundays off, argue Scantlebury, Birnkammer & Locklear.
Before this, workers would frequently work as many as 80-100 hours per week. But, Ford discovered that these extra hours only yielded a small increase in productivity, so in an effort to minimise cost and maximise productivity, he cut the working week down to 40 hours.
Yet, nearly 100 years later, the UK has one of the least productive economies, and works some of the longest hours in Europe.
And so much has changed since Henry Ford revolutionised business: Technology is now a part of everyday life, making us more efficient. We are also no longer confined to a single building in order to do our jobs as both ‘work from home’ and the ‘work from anywhere’ phenomenon continues to grow.
Maybe it is time to reevaluate our working week. In June 2022, 2,900 employees took part in a six-month trial of the four-day working week with almost every participating company choosing to continue with their new working schedule.
But why aren’t more businesses across the UK and the world following suit? We spoke to three business and HR leaders about the pros, cons and uncertainties surrounding the four-day week.
A win-win situation?
On the surface, it may seem like there couldn’t possibly be a downside to the four-day working week. And that’s not totally wrong – it has been proven that employees are healthier, happier and more productive when working only four days a week, making them less likely to suffer from stress, burnout or illness. On the other side, employers benefit from lower costs, increased productivity and, therefore, higher profit margins, all whilst being branded a great place to work.
But Hugh Scantlebury, CEO and Founder of Aqilla, argues that there is further value to enjoy when the extra day is put to good use: “Employees may choose to spend their extra day learning new skills or honing existing ones, for example, which can make them a better all-round individual with unique outlooks and experiences that they can bring back to the workplace. Alternatively, they may spend time doing charitable or volunteer work that gives back to the community. And, should the business actively encourage and support their employees to spend their extra day giving back to the community, it contributes to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) strategies that are ever-growing in importance and establish a positive brand reputation.
But ultimately the same conclusion is drawn: “Whether employees choose to spend their time on charity work, skills building or even just catching up on domestic chores, it all contributes to a healthy work-life balance,” Scantlebury summarises. “And, in the long run, this gives back to the business: Well-rested employees are more motivated and productive, have higher job satisfaction and are less likely to suffer from burnout.”
All of these positives about the four-day working week are increasingly being used as a talent attraction and retention tool, especially for smaller businesses. This extra time out of the office is crucial for certain societal groups, notably working parents. As a mother herself, Veronika Birnkammer, Head of Marketing APAC and Global Head of PR at Fluent Commerce, is able to empathise with this: “I often feel like my children’s lives are passing me by as they grow up so fast. Having an extra day a week to spend with them – and to spend on myself – would be heavenly.”
With the gender gap plaguing many industries, a four-day working week can also be beneficial in encouraging mothers back into the workforce by offering a better work-life balance.
But, being given an extra day off is not always as it seems at first glance. Many businesses, rather than cutting hours as Henry Ford once did, are asking workers to condense their working hours instead. Veronika Birnkammer recognises that this approach does not work for those with children and other domestic responsibilities. “It would make the day-to-day life of an active parent a nightmare,” she explains. “If that was the alternative, I’d rather stick to working five days and still have the breathing room to do school pickups, take them to their appointments etc. without feeling like I must cram ten hours of work into each day.”
Jen Locklear, Chief People Officer at ConnectWise, agrees with Veronika, arguing that four ten-hour working days “can be a difficult schedule for people to maintain long term. From an employer side, there is complexity in scheduling and ensuring that your customer base continues to get consistent attention and service to which they are accustomed. From an employee standpoint, there is flexibility concern because routine tasks like doctor’s appointments might now have the expectation of being scheduled on an employee’s day “off”.”
Flexibility is key
With the rise of remote working alongside debates around the four-day working week, it raises the questions as to whether it is actually flexibility that employees want. Jen Locklear emphasises that it is this flexibility that is crucial, rather than having an extra day ‘off’ each week, and there are different, less restrictive ways to provide this: “If employees are asking for this type of flexibility, an employer could also start with things like summer/holiday hours, volunteer time off, or floating holidays. Mental wellness days are also a great alternative to committing to a reduced work week, while also giving employees the flexibility they’re looking for. If employees have requested a four-day work week, I would encourage employers to dig deeper to determine if that is really what they want, or if they’re simply looking for more flexibility and a break from the routine.”
She also suggests that, “instead of offering a four-day work week as a pilot, employers could consider identifying the slower months of the year, such as summer holidays, and offer a few months of four-day weeks instead of a perpetual program that they may then have to backtrack. This could be a more effective and productive alternative than increasing the number of hours an employee is working in a day.”
Too good to be true?
Whilst the four-day working week is not yet common practice across the world, we are seeing more and more organisations offer flexibility. Whether that is staggered hours, flexi-time or work from anywhere policies, it allows employees to balance their working responsibilities with their personal schedules. A four-day week or three-day weekend may sound idealistic but the regimented 8am-6pm working days that so many businesses enforce in return can be considered a step backwards. Instead, we should focus on and commit to providing the flexibility that truly ensures a healthy work-life balance, 365 days a year.
Hugh Scantlebury, CEO and Founder of Aqilla.
Veronika Birnkammer, Head of Marketing APAC and Global Head of PR at Fluent Commerce.
Jen Locklear, Chief People Officer at ConnectWise.