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How does a 4 day work-week affect productivity?

There has been an increased demand for 4 day work-weeks amongst employees. The pandemic has caused a rethink, and along with hybrid and remote working, working less hours is topping the wishlist for many professionals – it is apparent we are still striving for that elusive work-life balance!

Here we look at the options for working fewer hours, and the effects it may have on productivity. We’ll also weigh up the pros and cons of reduced hours, both from a business’ point of view and from the employee’s perspective. Read on…

Work less, achieve more

Shortened work weeks may take various forms. In some cases, it will be as simple as working a full day less – e.g. working 32 hours a week rather than 40. Others will condense five days into four – e.g. work four long 10-hour shifts. And some may reduce their hours by say 20%, and stretch the length of their days.

However you do it, there are extensive benefits to working four day weeks, which we’ll come onto shortly, but first, let us tell you about one of the largest work-week studies recently published by Autonomy

The Icelandic Government trials a shorter working week

Iceland has been looking at the effects of shortening the work week, conducting trials over the last eight years. Thousands of participants (over 1% of Iceland’s entire working population) from various jobs and industries had their hours cut from 40 hours to 32 - 36 hours per week, with no reductions to pay. During the trials, the impact on both employees and their organisations were taken into account. Data was collected on a range of indicators including wellbeing, performance, and work-life balance.

The results: It quickly became glaringly obvious that worker wellbeing dramatically increased. Stress and burnout plummeted, and the health effects were hugely positive. So too were the productivity outcomes. Productivity was maintained or even improved for the majority of workplaces!

“The quantitative and qualitative data surveyed provides important real world evidence of the benefits of working time reduction, disarming worries about falling productivity and bolstering claims of improved worker wellbeing.”

There was a fear that employees would ‘cheat’ the trials by working in their own time to make up for lost hours, but that was not found to be the case, and workers were genuinely able to work shorter weeks whilst maintaining productivity. In many cases, they did so by improving efficiencies, although workplace happiness and motivation are sure to have factored into improving output too.

“To be able to work less while providing the same level of service, changes in the organisation of work therefore had to be implemented. Most commonly, this was done by rethinking how tasks were completed: shortening meetings, cutting out unnecessary tasks, and planning shifts arrangements.”

Should we all be working a 4 day week?

The results speak for themselves, but implementing a shorter work-week is not without its hurdles. Some companies may find that staff absence on 1 day of the week is detrimental to business, particularly where issues are time-sensitive and job sharing is not a viable solution. Research from Gallup has found that active disengagement spikes and workers who are already feeling disconnected from their company become more likely to drift further away if they work fewer days. As well as this, there is potential for teamwork to suffer. As employees become so focussed on completing their tasks in a tighter timeframe, collaboration can go out the window.

From an employee perspective, there is the risk that work will bleed into days off – Sunday evenings may end up being spent preparing for the week, and Thursday afternoons may become stressful when the reality hits that you have 1 less day to get through your workload. Likewise, your employer will need to be respectful of your time off and not treat it as though you are ‘on-call’. That said, these are relatively minor hurdles to overcome; teething problems which would be corrected over time.

The benefits of a 4 day work-week

Long weekends and bank holidays can leave us feeling refreshed and recharged, and are something we all look forward to. So why not experience these feelings every week?!

Three days off can help busy workers to bring a better sense of balance to their lives. It opens up time to pursue hobbies, spend time with family, and follow our passions – perhaps even building up skills for career progression too. It presents an opportunity to rest more fully too, in turn improving our mental well-being.

Compressing working hours into four days has further knock-on effects too. From lessening our carbon footprints by reducing commuting, to savings on childcare costs. In this example, a couple report that their shortened week allows their young children to go into childcare 1 less day, equating to a £400 a month saving!

Similarly, from the employer’s point of view, a more recharged staff has fantastic effects on motivation, engagement and workplace satisfaction. Happier staff are sure to be more content in their work and you will likely see improved rates of retention as a result. A four day work-week has been shown to lift employee wellbeing and reduce burnout, and can have a huge impact, reducing the number of sick days taken. Finally, offering a four day week will even attract new talents, who have shorter work-weeks on their job wishlist!

Rounding up

There is strong evidence to suggest that:

a) A four day work-week is topping employees’ wishlists – A survey of American workers showed a whopping 83% would prefer a four-day workweek. And employees who work a four day work-week rate their overall lives better.

b) Productivity is not reduced by working a shorter week – The extensive studies in Iceland have shown that productivity remains stable, and even improved for some teams, when cutting the 5 day work-week by a day.

c) Working a 4 day week correlates to better wellbeing – A shorter week allows for more downtime, which in turn improves focus, engagement and productivity, as well as happiness in the workplace. Contented staff improve the workplace culture as a whole.

Reducing the working week is not viable in every profession, and it will not suit everyone. If you can’t arrange a 4 day work-week at your company, at least be sure to take your holiday days. Evidence shows that employees are not taking half of their holiday days, and many of us are guilty of working even when we have a day off. Not getting enough restful time off work is a proven cause of burnout, which is not only detrimental to the company, but to individual’s wider health too.

It is evident that momentum is mounting for a four day work-week and we are sure to see further trials rollout. Watch this space!