In a recent trial of the four-day work week, 61 UK companies experimented with giving all their employees a paid day off every week. The experiment—the world’s largest, till date—has been hailed as a resounding success by its organizers. More than 90% of the participating companies want to keep the four-day week, either as a continuation of the pilot program or as a permanent change.
The pilot, which ran from June to December 2022, involved 2,900 employees in firms ranging from small, local restaurants to larger financial and tech firms. It followed a model in which companies sought to keep productivity at the same, pre-trial level or higher. They maintained pay levels, while offering employees much more free time.
Employees reported a 71% drop in feelings of burnout, and there was a 65% reduction in sick days taken, according to trial results collated in a report published by Autonomy, a UK think tank, based on research by academics at the US’s Boston College and the UK’s Cambridge University. There was also a very slight overall rise in revenue, and companies told researchers they mostly felt satisfied that productivity was maintained.
“We’re delighted to add these overwhelmingly positive results to our ever-growing evidence base in favour of reduced-hour, output-focused working,” said Charlotte Lockhart, the co-founder and managing director of 4 Day Week Global, which advocates for shorter work weeks based on the model trialed in the UK. In her statement, Lockhart argued that the UK experiment showed the model could work well for diverse industries.
“These results, combined with our previous research, demonstrate that non-profit and professional service employees had a larger increase in time spent exercising, while the small group of construction/manufacturing workers had the biggest reduction in burnout and sleep problems,” she said.
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Of course, 8% of companies in the UK trial decided to abandon the four-day week, indicating that the model isn’t, perhaps, for everyone.
Rose Gordon is the co-founder of Studio Don, a boutique design studio in London founded during the covid-19 pandemic. (Full disclosure: Thomas Seddon, Studio Don’s other founder, is related to this reporter.) A year after starting the business, and independent of the national trial taking place around the same time, the co-founders decided to move to a four-day week.
“Culturally, we’re championing work-life balance, mental health, and all those good things,” Gordon said. “We wanted to make Monday to Thursday more condensed; it would be solid, intense working, but then, balancing that, Friday to Sunday would be more time to relax, do things that might feed into creativity,” like visiting art galleries or exercising, she said.
But the four-day week didn’t work well for Studio Don, perhaps because it’s still small and fairly young, Gordon said. After a few months, the co-founders were experiencing more stress, not less. They found that everything they needed to do—which included client work and business development, as well as all the internal tasks necessary to getting a small business off the ground—didn’t fit into the squeezed schedule.
Studio Don went back to a five-day structure. But, Gordon said, they learned from the experiment about the virtues of flexibility, such as the ability to start or end the day when needed. The company is also trying no-questions-asked mental health days. Gordon said she wouldn’t rule out the possibility of another four-day-week trial further down the line.
The report from the national trial makes it clear that companies need to design the kind of week that works for them, and for the specifics of their industry. “Resisting the idea that the four-day week must be ‘one-size-fits-all’, each company designed a policy tailored to its particular industry, organisational challenges, departmental structures and work culture,” the report noted.
Some companies took Fridays off wholesale, while other staggered the days off among staff, and still others left it up to teams or individuals to decide and plan how to arrange the working week.
In a Twitter thread, David Frayne, one of the Cambridge University researchers behind the study, noted: “For me, such examples point to the next stage of the discussion…not only ‘how can these brilliant successes be replicated’, but how can business leaders, unions and government work together to bring about the best kind of 4 day week?”
Many companies in the UK have made the transition to a four day working week and have experienced great results. A four day working week, or “compressed weekday”, was first introduced so companies would be able to save money, decrease their carbon footprint, and extend their productive hours. Studies have showed that companies who embraced this transition have seen an increase in productivity, as well as employee happiness, motivation, and work-life balance.
The results of this transition have been so successful that some of the UK’s largest companies, such as Microsoft, have taken on the transition. Microsoft reported that it saved over £48,000 a year by reducing its working week to four days, with the same productivity and the same output.
However, not everyone is in favor of the four day work week. Small businesses may not be able to adjust to the shorter work week due to their smaller manpower. They are also unable to save money as it might be harder for them to accommodate the longer hours and may even have to hire more employees.
In addition, some people worry that the shorter working week may lead to longer days, which could increase stress levels, cause burnout, and result in people being unable to take the breaks they need to stay productive. Others point out that while the four day work week might be beneficial for companies with their own office space, people who work remotely, or part-time, may still be expected to put in the same amount of work, which could ultimately lead to less work-life balance.
Although the four day working week may not be the right solution for all companies, its positive results in the UK suggest that it may be worth a try for many businesses. Companies should consider the pros and cons of shorter working weeks and take into account their staff and workload before changing their workplace policy.