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Three-quarters of UK recruiters say a four-day week will be the norm by 2030, according to to research commissioned by NatWest on the future of work. 70% of SME employers surveyed agreed that reducing the time spent at work, without reducing their pay, was a good idea. And recruiters predict that’s how the market is changing.

The idea of ​​working fewer hours for the same pay is not entirely new. Between 2015 and 2019, Iceland conducted trials to understand the impact of working fewer hours on productivity and employee well-being. The trials involved 1% of the population and took place in schools, police forces, government departments and some parts of the health sector. It is important to recognize however that this was about reduced hours (in some cases by only an hour or two per week) rather than a four day work week.

Last month, the UK launched its own six-month program four day work week trial which involves 70 organizations and is the largest such trial ever conducted in the world. UK employers and workers participating in the pilot have access to workshops, mentorship, networking, wellbeing and productivity assessments to support and assess the impact of the trial.

However, we are already seeing interest in exploring the adoption of a four-day working week for employers not involved in the trial – including some from unlikely sectors, such as education.

So what’s the appeal for employers?

The tough job market

Many employers struggle to fill vacancies. Unemployment is at an all-time high and competition for talent at an all-time high. Additionally, employees with in-demand skills are becoming more discerning about which offer to accept, with many choosing to work for organizations with strong environmental, social and governance (ESG) credentials.

Many employees want to work flexibly and it is becoming common to see many positions advertised as hybrid. But it’s not just about being able to work from home; Increasingly, employees want employers to take active steps to support their health and wellbeing. Reducing the time they have to work without reducing their pay is likely to be high on most people’s wish list (what’s not to love from an employee’s point of view ?) and makes it easier for you to attract and retain staff.

We are also in the midst of a cost of living crisis and employers are being asked to make significant wage increases to offset inflationary price increases. Adopting a four-day workweek model will give staff a real-world pay raise (working fewer hours means their hourly rates will go up), and they’ll save money if they surrender usually at work.

Can the four-day week really work?

The Icelandic study found that shift workers benefited slightly more than office workers during the trials, but all groups saw an improvement in their overall well-being. They found it easier to balance work with household responsibilities and had more time to spend on exercise, hobbies and seeing friends and family. But the big reveal was that productivity was not affected, regardless of the type of work involved and, the reason for this, according to the report’s co-author, is that people “unquestionably lose hours at work”.

But there are also disadvantages:

1. Allowing staff to work shorter hours without reducing their workload could increase pressure and stress on employees who are already working productively and efficiently. A particular challenge can be to reduce the working hours of part-time workers when the hours available to fulfill their role are already limited.

2. You may have to manage a more complex array of work patterns, if you can’t just shut down your workplace one day a week, or employ other employees to cover this (which will increase your overhead to unless you also increase productivity). This happened in the Icelandic study where the government had to hire more healthcare workers to provide coverage due to shorter working hours.

3. What will you do if you can’t maintain the productivity you need to stay profitable or meet customer demand?

Alternatives to the four-day work week

It’s clearly not easy for all employers to adopt a four-day work week. But there are other alternatives that should further improve employee well-being without negatively impacting the service provided.

For example, your business can:

  • implement a nine-out-of-ten day work schedule, or work a half day rather than a full day one day a week
  • reduce the daily working hours of all employees – even if it is only by an hour or two
  • introduce flexible work policies that take employees away from their rigid work patterns and give them the freedom to do their jobs at a time that suits you and them.

Three tips to help you reduce work time without impacting performance

1. Communicate with your staff

If you are trying to reduce employee working hours, you will need to involve your staff and discuss with them how you envision it working, your expectations, and how you will determine if the trial was a success. . Clear and honest communication is essential. You’ll need to think about the model you want to test, then ask the staff for their feedback and suggestions on how to make it work.

If you don’t offer a shorter workweek to all staff, you’ll also need to think about how that might work out with those who aren’t involved and who will be working longer hours than their lower-paid colleagues. Will you pay them extra money to make amends, or will you rotate the trial so everyone experiences it, albeit at different times?

You may also need to review and make changes to your work practices. Talk to your staff as they may be able to identify easy time savings that you can implement quickly and easily.

If you recognize a union for collective bargaining, you will need to consult with them to try to agree any changes you are proposing.

2. Set up trial periods and get the right contract

There is no guarantee that the four-day work week will work for your organization. You should reserve the right to require staff to return to their normal work schedule after the test so that if productivity drops significantly (or if the test fails on any other measure you have the intention to use), you can do so.

This requires a temporary change to your employee’s terms of employment. You do not have to issue a new s1 statement or a new employment contract, but you must explain in writing to each employee, how long the probation will last, how much the employee will be paid, and any other relevant information.

3. Determine how to maintain or increase productivity

There are a number of measures that can be put in place to increase employee productivity, including:

  • encourage employees to turn off emails or other notifications when working on an important task and set aside certain times when they may be disturbed
  • help employees be more productive by identifying their individual work style. For example, the Pomodoro technique encourages staff to focus deeply for 25 minutes and then take a five minute break. But it won’t work for everyone. There is a very useful (and free) tool to help staff identify their ideal productivity model that you can access here
  • have a “meeting-free” day once a week to allow employees to focus on the work ahead of them and more generally to limit meetings as much as possible
  • giving up routine tasks that offer little benefit
  • encourage staff to meet at lunchtime and any other scheduled breaks rather than at the ‘water cooler’