The 4-day week is being trialled in the UK, but organisations should focus on providing flexibility to their employees for greater productivity and mental wellness

Written by Dr Erin Eatough, Manager of Behavioral Science and Lead Researcher, BetterUp 

A four-day working week is a much-debated work trend that has become a common conversation point as the biggest worldwide pilot of the idea currently takes place across the UK. More than 60 organisations signed up to trial the new schedule, and there will be no loss in pay for employees, but instead they will be asked to maintain 100% productivity for 80% of their time.

The COVID-19 pandemic made a lot of important changes in our understanding of how productivity, pressure, and working hours intersect. Companies have traditionally adhered to a separation between work and personal lives. However, Covid-19 surfaced a realisation that lines are blurred between the two.

And whilst the pandemic was hugely challenging for families across the world, there were some  benefits. Employees given the option and flexibility to structure their day to suit them were better able to efficiently balance their mental wellbeing, physical health and family responsibilities with work.

The reality is that people are still juggling childcare with full time working and their mental wellbeing is taking a toll. Increased flexibility became more important to employees as they reported feeling burnout and like they had to be ‘always on’.

 

So, should the 4-day working week be the new normal?

In 2015 Reykjavik City Council in Iceland launched a four-day working week experiment, involving 1% of the total workforce. The experiment was cited to be an “overwhelming success” with employees reporting increased morale, a reduction in burnout, better work-life balance – and most importantly to employers, no decrease in productivity. Now 86% of Iceland’s workforce is following suit and  either working a reduced schedule or in the process of making the transition.

Recent research, commissioned by Smart Locker Provider Velocity Smart Technology,  found that 72% of office workers in the UK would prefer a four-day week. When approaching such a transition, it’s important that employees and employers alike are aware that the key characteristic of the four-day working week is that it is different to a compressed workweek,  which tends to lead to overwork and additional stress. The four-day working week means employees will maintain the same work schedule and hours but be more productive and efficient four days a week instead of five.

But in order for that approach to succeed, organisations need to set realistic expectations and make systemic, cultural changes to their ways of working.

 

What do companies need to know?

 The research shows benefits to transitioning to a four-day working week to increase productivity and mental wellbeing. Many companies worry that reduced working hours would result in a reduction of results and work output. However, this is proven to not be the case. The trials have shown proof points that employees are just as productive, highlighting that these workers with a 3-day weekend tend to perform better.

However, whilst there are lots of benefits to the four-day working week, we are still many years away from it being standard practise. And whilst flexible or hybrid working has become a ‘must have’ rather than a ‘would like’ to many employees, a four-day working week won’t be practical depending on the nature of the industry or corporation.

For those who aren’t quite able to make the shift to a four-day work week but still want to find ways to support employees and boost productivity – companies can create intentional space for employees to have inner work time during the work week. BetterUp research has found that when employees take the time to look inwards and focus on things that ignite their passion, creativity, and innovation, their overall wellbeing improves and leads to more fulfilling and productive workdays.

Leaders can offer other benefits to support mental wellbeing, such as mental health days, flexible hours, coaching services, and team days to ensure that employees feel engaged, looked after and continue to stay productive.

And for those who are interested in trialling a shorter work week, businesses must be prepared to manage this change thoughtfully and make cultural adaptations to ensure that a shortened work week approach is successful. For many people, one less work day makes it difficult to maintain the same levels of productivity – let alone increase productivity. To avoid further burdening employees, organisations must provide support and coaching to help employees cultivate focus, prioritise, and learn to disconnect and recover so they can optimise their performance when they are working.

Each workforce is unique, so having an ongoing dialogue about what is or isn’t working, and an openness to adapt to the needs of the team is ultimately the best way to cultivate engagement and productivity – regardless of how many days the team is expected to work each week.