While Portugal is the latest country to jump on the four-day workweek bandwagon, with 39 private sector businesses participating in a five-month program ending this month, a similar program conducted in the U.K. last year has yielded some interesting results.
Of the 61 companies that participated in the U.K. pilot from June to December 2022, 56 (91 per cent) are continuing with the four-day workweek, according to non-profit 4 Day Week Global. When employees in the program were asked about a hypothetical trade-off between working time and pay, 70 per cent said they’d want a salary increase of between 10 per cent and 50 per cent to return to a five-day workweek. Fifteen per cent said there was no amount of money that could convince them to return to a five-day workweek.
Environmental consultancy Tyler Grange Group Ltd. is among the employers continuing the four-day workweek. Simon Ursell, the company’s managing director, says it was “kicking around a four-day work-week” well before the formal pilot. When employees were working and getting paid for four days, he says, “we noticed they were better at their jobs. They were doing more work.”
After research and discussions with companies that had implemented a four-day workweek, Tyler Grange began talking to its team in January 2021, well before the start of the U.K. project in June 2022. At first, says Ursell, there was “remarkably high resistance” among some employees, who didn’t know how they were going to do the same amount of work they did in five days. But that wasn’t a deterrent for the company.
“[That resistance] got us laser-focused on the reason you do it — because a four-day workweek is clickbait. I don’t think the four-day workweek is the point at all. It’s about what is the most productive working pattern for your organization.”
Not many business leaders, if any, sit down and figure out that working pattern, he adds. “What they’re saying, essentially, is, ‘We work five days because we’ve always done that’ — it’s tradition and convention and to work less than that feels like laziness and something fairly silly.”
A four-day workweek in which employees work fewer days but make the same salary could be a “tough sell” for some organizations, says Erica Carleton, associate dean of faculty relations and associate professor at the University of Regina. “That’s a hard thing because employers really think about it like they’re paying people for hours worked. But that’s just hours at work — it’s not actual work.”
Christie Rall, a partner at Mercer Canada, says the key to implementing a four-day workweek is looking at the design of work, the systems and structures, as well as opportunities to reduce friction. This includes looking at elements such as enabling tools at work, streamlining processes or reducing distractions.
For its part, Tyler Grange invested heavily in its systems, working practices and training, says Ursell. While decreased productivity is often cited as a concern around a shortened workweek, that hasn’t necessarily rung true, says Rall. “I think one of the lessons learned out of what we’re seeing in the U.K. is that there doesn’t seem to be an impact on productivity or business outcomes.”
Tyler Grange was roughly six per cent more productive for its financial year ending July 2023, says Ursell, measured by average turnover per head and by completed projects. While the company was very prepared for the four-day workweek pilot, there were still some small surprises, he adds. “What do you do when your office is shut? How does a client get a hold of you on a Friday? Sometimes they need to; they’re going to need something.” In response, the company set up an emergency phone line that’s monitored by senior leaders.
In addition to increased productivity, the four-day workweek is also supporting employee well-being. The U.K. pilot found 39 per cent of employees were less stressed and 71 per cent had reduced levels of burnout by the end of the program.
Ursell has noticed this improvement within Tyler Grange’s workforce. “The reality is, Monday mornings — and I swear this is true — our team enjoy coming into the office. And before the four-day week, they definitely didn’t. . . . But you get that extra day and it makes a huge difference.”
While the four-day workweek is helping to retain employees, he says the organization encourages turn-over. “People don’t leave and that’s not that healthy, because you get stuck in a rut with work. We quite like a healthy turnover, but our turnover really is low, which is partly because of the four-day week.”
For employers considering a four-day workweek, it’s important to understand why they’d continue with a five-day week, says Ursell, noting if they can’t answer the question, they should look at other models of working.
It also pays to be prepared by researching the four-day workweek and then engaging with employees on the proposal. “Get them [to be] part of the conversation around what would be the best way to make it work,” he says.
Employers also need to expect resistance and be prepared to lose some employees. “We lost people that we like because of the four-day week, because they wanted to work five days,” says Ursell. “I like that it’s riling people a little. It’s healthy, but you’ve got to be prepared for it.”
Brooke Smith is a freelance writer.