Results from the world’s largest four day working week trial show promise for the progressive policy

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez February 21, 2023
Four day working weeks sound appealing, but are they realistic? According to the results of a wide-ranging trial, it’s perhaps time to take the workplace policy seriously.

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(© VECTOR FUN - Shutterstock)

You’re looking at giving people 40, 50 extra days a year, which is incredible really... If we can make it work, it’s very precious.

This quote from the CEO of a non-profit organization, one of 61 companies in the UK that took part in the world’s largest four day working week trial, really drives home what this progressive workplace policy aims to achieve. Time is precious, and as organizations rethink their approach to how the workplace works in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, a four day working week is now being taken seriously by some. 

But what people desire and what’s practical are two different things. In the context of flatlining productivity levels and a woeful macroeconomic outlook, is now the time to be considering reduced working hours, whilst providing the same level of pay? According to the trial’s results, which were spearheaded by think-tank Autonomy, there are tangible business benefits to at least considering it. 

Many will consider a four day working week a radical solution to improving employee wellbeing - and so what’s needed to get the policy off the ground in a meaningful way is data. Useful data that can help companies understand what the likely outcomes will be, what to expect in terms of pitfalls, and what best practice is available to implement it successfully. 

The trial consisted of 61 companies and approximately 2,900 workers, taking place in the UK between June and December 2022. The design of the trial involved two months of preparation for participants, including workshops, coaching, mentoring and peer support, drawing on the experiences of companies that had already moved to a shorter working week. 

The companies themselves came from a variety of sectors, and included organizations of a range of sizes. There was no set way required to implement a four day week, the only mandate was that pay was maintained at 100% and employees had a “meaningful” reduction in work time. 

For instance, some companies adopted a rigid one day stoppage of work per week (e.g. a Monday, Wednesday or Friday), whilst others opted for staff taking alternate days off or different departments operating on different working patterns. 

Some also adopted a ‘highly protected’ policy, which means the day off chosen had a similar status to a Saturday or Sunday, whilst others had formal or informal agreements with workers that they may be required to come in to work if absolutely necessary. 

One key characteristic among the participants of the trial was that it included a large number of smaller companies. Distribution was wide, with one company of approximately 1,000 staff, but 66 per cent had 25 or fewer employees. 22 per cent of firms have 50 or more staff. 

The key results

The key outcome of the trial is that whilst many of the companies had to think differently about how they operate, of the 61 that participated, 56 are choosing to continue with the four day week (92%), with 18 of those confirming that the policy is a permanent change. It’s hard to deny that in these particular instances, support for the policy is overwhelming. 

Only 5% of participants have put the trial on pause, whilst the remaining 3% are still in a pilot phase of some sort. 

Some of the outcomes are particularly interesting. For instance, revenue broadly stayed the same for organizations over the trial (depending on how it was measured). For the companies that supplied data, revenue increased 1.4 per cent from the start of the trial to its endpoint (when weighted by company size). 

The researchers then also compared the revenue change from a comparable, prior six month period to the trial period, and actually saw that revenue for the period increased significantly - by 34.5 per cent. 

Across the period, the number of employees in the participating companies stayed effectively the same, dipping just 1.3 per cent (as a weighted average). 

However, there was a substantial decline in the likelihood that an employee would quit between the comparison period and during the trial. Measured as the number of resignations per 100 employees, the trial found a decline from 2.0 to 0.8 from the comparison to the trial period (57% reduction). 

It also found a reduction in absenteeism, measured as sick and personal days per employee per month. Those fell from a reported 2.0 in the comparison period to just 0.7 during the trial (a 65% reduction). 

In terms of work hours reduction, overall the trial found that on average total hours worked per week reduced from 38 hours to 24 hours. The full expected 8 hour reduction can be attributed to a few companies executing less than this, according to Autonomy, but the reduction was still significant overall. 

For instance, some 71% of the Samuel reported a decline in working hours and the average number of days worked went from 4.86 to 4.52 (a reduction of roughly a third of a day). Autonomy said that many employees experience four day weeks, but occasionally carried out modest amounts of work on the fifth day. 

Employee benefits

It goes without saying that one of the key ambitions of a four day working week is centered around an improved employee experience. And the trial found that whilst nearly 13 per cent of employees did experience an increase in stress, three times as many (39 per cent) were less stressed, with the remainder (48 per cent) recording no change in stress levels. 

Burnout declined from an average score of 2.8 to 2.34, with a significant 71 per cent of employees reporting lower levels of burnout, compared to 22 per cent that recorded a higher burnout score. 

Elsewhere, employees also reported being more satisfied with their job,registering a significant average increase from 7.12 to 7.69 on a 0 to 10 scale, and with 48 per cent of employees more satisfied than when they started. 

The benefits for employees continued, with 43 per cent reporting an increase in mental health, versus only 16 per cent seeing a decline. Similarly, 54 per cent of employees report a reduction in negative emotions. Some 37 per cent of employees also reported improvements in physical health and 46 per cent of employees reported a reduction in fatigue. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some 96 per cent of employees preferred working four days a week, with only 3 per cent saying that they had no preference and 2 per cent saying they’d prefer a five day working week. 

Interestingly, the researchers also asked the participants how much they would expect to be paid at their next job in order to go back to a five day schedule and 40 per cent of employees said that they’ d need a 10-25 per cent pay increase, whilst 29 per cent said that they’d need a 26-50 per cent pay increase. Some 15 per cent said that no amount of money would convince them to go back to a five day working week. 

I think it’s worth highlighting some of the quotes from those surveyed too, to showcase the impact and importance of this trial. 

The CEO of a distribution company said: 

In any organization people are the key. You need to look out for them.

The CEO of a care organization said: 

I don’t want to retire and go 'what the hell do I do now?'... I need to start doing things now that are going to sustain me when I finish working.

The CEO of a non-profit organization said: 

We want to give people the gift of time - if that doesn’t sound

too chocolate box-y – because [remote working means] we’ve all got to know so much more about our colleagues’ lives, their living rooms and their pets and their kids... I hated the pandemic, but it’s made us all see each other much more in the round, and it’s made us all realise the importance of having a healthy head, and that family matters.

My take

It’s worth reading the study in full, it makes for some fascinating insights into how significant this project was for some organizations. For instance, some decided to even turn down work from smaller clients, or clients that aren’t aligned with their purpose, in order to make this possible for employees. Others sought out new efficiencies, including automating aspects of work, adopting new software, or reforming the norms around meetings. 

I have my doubts about whether such a workplace policy will garner wide-scale support. In particular it would be useful to get some data from organizations that have significantly larger numbers of employees (10,000+, for example). However, I’m pleased to see some hard data that speaks to the benefits - as well as the challenges. 

The status quo is arguably not working for many people, companies and economies at the moment. Productivity is flatlining at best in many countries and people are increasingly reporting unsustainable levels of burnout, as well as dissatisfaction with the deal that’s made between their work/life balance. 

The world of work has changed drastically over the past decade or two and perhaps it’s time to drastically rethink how workplaces operate. For knowledge workers especially, work has gotten increasingly digital, and we increasingly work with people across the globe, communicating all day long via screens. That in turn, arguably, leaves people wanting more real-life connection in their lives outside of the workplace - but time is scarce. 

Time will tell though about how workers respond to the demands placed on them by organizations, but my gut tells me that those organizations that are daring to at least try new radical policies that place the employee at the heart of their operations, may well end up succeeding over the long term. 

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