The jury is still out on whether the four-day week will remain the exception rather than the rule in future. In February, we learned that the majority of UK companies that took part in a six-month pilot in 2022 (offering employees a shorter working week on full pay for the same level of productivity) voted to continue with the trial, with 18 companies deciding to introduce the model permanently.
Yet while some businesses have hailed the benefits – which include improved employee wellbeing and work-life balance – others have been more cautious, wanting more evidence on customer service, productivity and revenue metrics before they take a first or permanent step down a four-day week path. Clearly, different organisations have different factors to take into account when considering such an experiment depending on the nature of their business and workforce.
We know that the 4 Day Week campaign that promoted this trial is lobbying government to encourage legislative change to give staff the right to a four-day pattern. However, that does not appear to be garnering widespread support at this stage. A private members’ bill proposed by Labour MP Peter Dowd is currently making its way through the House of Commons, recommending amendments to the Working Time Regulations 1998 by reducing the maximum working week from 48 to 32 hours, with any time worked above that being paid at 1.5 times the employee’s hourly pay. Most believe, however, that it is unlikely to be enacted.
Yet making the right to request flexible working a ‘day one’ employment right is on the cards and is expected to be enacted later this year. So, emanating from this, employers should consider how they would respond to requests for a four-day week, either on an individual employee basis or across their organisation.
- Prepare and consult: before announcing any company-wide four-day week pattern, businesses should carefully plan whether it will initially be implemented on a trial basis and, if so, how long any trial will last and the criteria for assessing its success. It’s also wise to consult with employees and management about their views and suggestions.
- Manage expectations: it may be a good idea to include a ‘get out clause’ in any agreed change to terms and conditions of employment following a seemingly successful trial to ensure that employers can revert to a five-day week if needed.
- Preventing burnout: it is important to alleviate the risk of employees getting stressed at being expected to do the same amount of work in what may feel like less time, or feeling overburdened on four longer working days. Offering efficiency advice such as a drive to reduce internal meetings, or trialling other ideas to increase efficiency, may be a useful step.
- Workplace culture: as the focus of working time may be increasingly geared towards productivity, social activities and team bonding become increasingly important in maintaining good morale and retention of talent. Employers may need to play a more active role in monitoring staff morale and the impact any change in working patterns may be having on it.
- Alternative structures: each business will need to tailor its approach to their own client or customer service levels. Rather than shutting down on a Friday, for example, employers could consider staggered or alternating days off for staff, or job-sharing arrangements. There is no single ‘four-day week’ model. Organisations will need to consider which (if any) structure works best for them.
- Holiday: employers may need to revise holiday pay policies if employees are reducing working hours impacting holiday entitlement.
- Tread carefully when it comes to part-time working: there is a need to differentiate between employees on a four-day week receiving full pay on the expectation of 100 per cent productivity and existing part-time workers who may be working a four-day week for 20 per cent less pay. There may also be a risk of discrimination claims if existing part-time workers are not offered an opportunity to take part in a new four-day week scheme offering full pay, particularly given that those already working part time tend to be women with children or those with disabilities.
Although not all employers are enthusiastic about the concept of a four-day working week, in some ways the genie is already out of the bottle. The 4 Day Week campaign and widespread publicity for the trial by certain companies, combined with the fact that many employees acquired a taste for flexible working during the Covid pandemic, will have emboldened some employees to make such a flexible working request.
Businesses will need to consider such requests carefully in accordance with the relevant flexible working rules and in light of the impact such an arrangement may have on their business. This is an area of continuing development for employment law and it will be interesting to see how far the 4 Day Week campaign goes in changing employee attitudes and employers’ ways of working over the medium to long term.