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The rise of the four-day working week?

Posted on 11 February 2022

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, interest in a shorter working week had slowly been gaining momentum worldwide. In 2019,  Microsoft trialled a four-day working week across its Japanese offices and reported  more efficient meetings, happier workers and a 40% increase in productivity1. Similarly, following trials held between 2015 and 2019, 86% of Iceland's workforce has now either moved to a shorter working week, or gained the right to do so without reduction in pay2.

According to a recent report by the Financial Times, more UK employers are also now exploring the feasibility of a four-day working week. This article examines the issues employers need to bear in mind if they are considering following suit.    

The current status of flexible working in the UK

Four-day working week fever is clearly catching on in the UK. In June this year, 30 companies will trial a four-day working week by reducing their employees' working time to 32 hours per week for six months. Employees will continue to receive 100% of their salary and benefits, for 80% of their time, while committing to maintain 100% of their productivity.

Though a limited sample size, no UK employer is fully insulated from the prospect of a four-day working week. Employees with 26 weeks' continuous employment may, under the statutory Flexible Working Request ("FWR") regime, request a variation to their regular working pattern, which may include a request to work four days per week. Among other things, employers must deal with such requests in a reasonable manner, notify the employee of its decision within three months (unless the employee and employer agree otherwise) and may only refuse a request for one of eight prescribed reasons. Failure to do so entitles an employee to bring a complaint before an employment tribunal.  

Though the FWR regime was significantly underutilised by employees (especially men) pre-Covid, the pandemic has led many to re-evaluate their working lives. As such, employee appetite for remote and/or hybrid working remains high, notwithstanding the easing of restrictions. Employers can therefore expect to face increasing requests for flexible working arrangements from all corners of the workforce.

The UK Government is also exploring reforms to the FWR regime which may further increase the number of requests received by employers. In its consultation paper "Making flexible working the default" launched in September 2021, the Government is proposing various measures to broaden the scope of the right, perhaps the most significant of which is to make flexible working a "day one" right, thereby removing the requirement for 26 weeks' qualifying service.

The pros and cons of a four-day working week

Research has indicated several positives arising from a four-day working week, such as:

  • Increased productivity: The Society for Human Resource Management reports that 60% of organisations operating a four-day working week experienced higher productivity and increased employee satisfaction3.
  • Improvement in gender equality: According to the Government Equalities Office, approximately two million Brits are not currently in employment due to childcare responsibilities, of which 89% are women. A four-day working week is considered conducive to promoting gender equality in the workplace.
  • Retention: By offering employees a four-day working week, employers are more likely to attract and retain talent.
  • Environmental benefits: Less time in the office means a reduced carbon footprint, by decreasing the need for employees to commute. Similarly, large office spaces consume less energy during a shorter working week.

That said, a four-day working week also presents challenges for employers, such as:

  • Business/industry suitability: A four-day working week will not be appropriate for every business model and/or industry. For instance, some require a 24/7 presence from staff, which is likely to make a shorter week impractical.
  • Excessive workloads: Reduced hours do not necessarily mean reduced workloads. Rather, condensing working hours may increase pressure on employees, which may in turn negatively impact productivity, morale, retention and/or mental health (among others).
  • Client service: staffing and/or operational shortfalls may affect customer satisfaction. For example, smaller businesses may not have the resources to cope with flexible working patterns, in which case this could have a detrimental impact on customer service.

Where does this leave UK employers?

The proposed Government reforms to the FWR legal framework, coupled with the UK pilot scheme, reinforces the shift in culture towards more flexible working. As the UK adapts (once again) to an easing of Covid-related restrictions, it is clear that reconceptualising the work-life balance will be a lasting legacy of the pandemic.

Still, any decision to implement a four-day working week across an organisation will need to be assessed by reference to that organisation's specific needs and it will no doubt be a process of trial and error for many who take the leap. Those contemplating doing so may wish to consider the following:

  • conducting an internal consultation first, to seek feedback from employees as to how flexible working can best be utilised for the business;
  • keeping a detailed record of changes to working patterns (ensuring contracts are varied accordingly and lawfully), with periodic reviews to assess the effectiveness of the arrangements;
  • implementing a trial period in order to evaluate the impact of a new working pattern before a permanent arrangement is agreed or deployed; and
  • being flexible and open to modifying arrangements where appropriate.
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