Working a 4-day week

Fighting COVID-19 has disrupted everything we once held true. Working from home became a reality, working remotely and asynchronously have become distinct possibilities in a post-pandemic world. But what about working a four-day week?

A new study by Henley UK, building on its pioneering study conducted in 2019 before the beginning of the global lockdowns, has found there is an increased appetite for it among employers and employees – and a measurable benefit for businesses that implement it.

Following on from Henley’s landmark Four Better or Four Worse study in 2019, researchers in Britain interviewed more than 2 000 employees and 500 business leaders in November 2021 to find out how to stop the Great Resignation, enable companies to recruit the best people and keep them.

Previously Gen Z and Millennials had been pushing for a four-day working week, now the sentiment has spread across the age spectrum. 65% of the British businesses that were surveyed are now implementing a four-day working week for some or all of their staff and reporting very positive results: 66% of those who implemented the shorter working week have reported a drop in costs; 64% say the quality of work has not dropped; and, 66% believe working shorter hours will enable companies to produce more work at higher quality. 75% say staff are happier and less stressed working shorter hours, while 66% of staff believe working shorter hours will improve their mental wellbeing.

The potential savings are substantial: greater staff satisfaction, higher productivity and lower sickness rates could amount to a combined saving of £104-billion, or 2,2% of the total annual turnover. Given an extra day off, most people will still prioritise spending time with family, but increasing numbers use the day to shop, with a third now wanting to use the day for their side hustle or to work for charities. There’s a green dividend too with a possible reduction of 691 million miles travelled each week in Britain, cutting road congestion and pollution, if all companies implement a four-day working week.

In 2019, one of the biggest drawbacks to companies cutting down the work week was the fear of the negative effect this would have on their customers. This concern still exists but has dropped dramatically in the two years since the original study. The biggest challenge remains in defining what the four-day week is and which day the employees can take off. Most staff still want the right to choose which day or the opportunity to work their hours when they choose.

Another challenge remains overcoming the continued concern among 45% of the respondents of being considered lazy by employers and colleagues, while 35% remain worried about handing over work to colleagues. Many workers though are keen to continue working from home following their experience under lockdown. A growing number of them would pay for flexibility, with 27% of respondents being prepared to take a pay cut to be able to work from home and avoid the expense in time and money of the commute.

One of the biggest revelations from the study has been the closing of the generation gap with the majority of respondents seeing careers as more and more about making a living, rather than life itself, putting the onus on employers to do more to retain them. Employees are placing a far greater importance upon their own autonomy from being able to use their own equipment and tech; such as mobile phones and computers, down to the clothes they wear.

New office designs will have to foster connectivity to allow collaboration and company policies will have to reflect staff autonomy through revised dress codes or face the prospect of staff working elsewhere.

The lockdown has also incubated the rise of the portfolio career: people expect to have more than one career or jobs, building on the side hustle phenomenon which Henley explored in its 2018 study and then replicated in South Africa the following year.

“We have seen a lot of these findings play out anecdotally in South Africa,” says Jon Foster-Pedley, Henley Business School Africa’s dean and director, “and just as it was once unthinkable to let people work from home, maybe we should now start thinking about shortening the working week.

“There are measured and proven benefits both in terms of morale and productivity that have been tracked in the UK, but the most important factor for South Africa might be the impetus this could give to encourage the rise of the side hustle and unleash its potential to create jobs in a society that is crying out for employment.”

Useful resources:
Henley Business School
At the core of Henley’s philosophy is the belief that we need to develop managers and leaders for the future. We believe the challenge facing future leaders is the need to solve dilemmas through making choices. We work with both individuals and organisations to create the appropriate learning environment to facilitate the critical thinking skills to prepare for the future.
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