UK Markets close in 6 hrs 58 mins

What is stopping employers from introducing four-day weeks?

A woman cycles down a street painted in rainbow colours near the Hallgrimskirkja church, in Reykjavik, Iceland. The world's largest trial of a four-day working week in Iceland proved a success. Photo: John Sibley/Reuters
A woman cycles down a street painted in rainbow colours near the Hallgrimskirkja church, in Reykjavik, Iceland. The world's largest trial of a four-day working week in Iceland proved a success. Photo: John Sibley/Reuters

The four-day working week is showing promise for the future of work. Trials around the world are touting the benefits of shorter working weeks, including reducing stress and sick days, lowering carbon emissions and overhead costs for companies, and boosting job satisfaction among employees.

And research suggests there is no trade-off for employers either: Workers can be as productive in 30 hours as they are in 40, because they waste less time and are better-rested.

The world’s largest trial of a four-day working week and reduced working time in Iceland proved a success. Carried out between 2015 and 2019 by Reykjavík City Council and the national government, the trials involved 2,500 workers across various workplaces, including preschools, offices, social service providers and hospitals.

Watch: Iceland's four-day work week trail successful

Working hours were cut to 35-36 hours a week with no reduction in overall pay, but productivity remained the same or improved in many businesses. Workers also reported feeling less stressed and at risk of burnout, and said their health and work-life balance had improved.

The COVID-19 pandemic has already changed the way we work, with more people working remotely and an increasing number of companies adopting hybrid models. However, not all employers are convinced that reducing five-day weeks to four is the way forward, despite the growing body of evidence suggesting otherwise. But why?

Read more: Six ways to ease yourself back into work after an illness

“This is a fundamental shift to how the businesses would operate. The philosophy of work in many organisations would need to change: work habits, output, priorities, behaviours, ways to collaborate, efficient work processes and more,” says Joanna Blazinska, a career coach and strategist.

After 18 months of chaos and disruption caused by coronavirus, businesses may be reluctant to overhaul the way they work. Moving from a five to four-day week isn’t as simple as telling people not to come into work on a Friday – it involves a significant mindset shift.

Although many businesses made a quick transition to remote working, a four-day week requires an extra level of faith. Employers must be ready to give workers a three-day weekend without expecting them to answer emails or Slack messages – and trust them to do their work in fewer hours.

“For some companies it would be too quick to jump onto another change after all the changes during the pandemic,” says Blazinska. “A change in the philosophy and culture of work is a big project for any company and needs to be handled over time. Leaders remember the quick adoption of remote work and they know it can be done under pressure. However, if this is a positive change, they might not want to change what works now.”

Additionally, some industries or businesses may not be suited to a four-day week. There is likely to be some resistance in companies with more aggressive work cultures, including in financial services. In other firms, a 24/7 service might be expected by clients or customers may expect a quick response time, which may be slowed by a shorter working week. Some may also be concerned about losing business to firms with five-day weeks.

“In some companies, there is an unquestioned assumption of ‘our customers want us available five days a week’. Some roles may not be able to operate in four days, such as warehouses, logistics or transportation,” adds Blazinska.

Watch: Is it time for the four-day work week?

Read more: How to keep remote workers engaged and happy

Much of the research around four-day weeks has centred on the wellbeing benefits of working fewer hours. With workplace health a key concern for business – particularly amid the fallout of COVID-19 – the positive impact of a shorter week shouldn’t be overlooked.

However, rushing into a four-day week could exacerbate problems such as stress, anxiety and burnout. It’s crucial for employers to be realistic about what people can achieve in four days and to avoid placing unreasonable expectations on employees. There may also be pressure for employees to check emails and be in contact on days off, defeating the purpose of a four-day week.

“Without diligent implementation, it could be costly and deliver quite the opposite result than the intended benefits,” says Blazinska. “Employees need to be set up for success through clear company policies, clear job requirements, shared best practices among teams and individuals. Pressure on employees to accomplish more in four days and rushing to accomplish as much could cause burnout.”

Clearly, there are benefits to be reaped from adopting four-day weeks for many businesses. Yet shifting to a new way of working comes with challenges too. To make it work, employees need to be involved in the decision to find out if it would work for them.

Four-day weeks should be trialled before a permanent change is made and companies need to be prepared to embrace an entirely different mentality, Blazinska explains. “People are being paid for the outcome, not time spent at a desk,” she says.

Watch: How to answer difficult interview questions