Small Business

Could a 4 Day Week be the Future for UK Businesses?

Many businesses across the UK are trialling a new work week - but will it impact their output?...
Sean QuinnPosted on Thursday, September 29th 2022

For the past century, a 5 day working week has been the norm. Introduced by Henry Ford in 1926, the new standard work week gave employees two days of rest after a hard week of work, and also offered them the opportunity to spend their hard earned cash - to the benefit of businesses and the economy as a whole.

As technology has advanced, most manual and administrative jobs have been made easier by modern machinery and software. Despite expectations that our working hours would reduce as technology took over, the standard 40 hour work week has remained - but are we really productive for all of those hours?

Studies have shown that our productivity fluctuates not only throughout the week, but also day-to-day. The data shows that for most people, productivity is highest at 11am, then dips completely after 4pm, rendering those late night stints in the office useless. Productivity is also highest at the beginning of the week, with most tasks being completed Monday and Tuesday. By the end of the week, productivity drops severely - with some studies estimating that Fridays are up to 90% less productive than the first two days of the week. In light of this data, some may question whether it's worth turning up on Friday at all.

Others may bring into question the concept of the 8 hour work day, given how our lives have changed since the standard was introduced by reformists such as Robert Owen (who famously professed that the workday should consist of "8 hours work, 8 hours recreation and 8 hours rest"). In the early 19th century, most people worked close to home, completing manual and repetitive jobs, where time spent is directly related to output.

In the modern age, many people face long commutes to work - eating into those precious 8 hours of recreation time. The nature of our work has also shifted away from manual processes, towards more creative or operation roles. Working longer hours on these types of tasks doesn't always ensure greater output, and it's often more beneficial to focus on quality rather than quantity.

Some research suggests that we're already working shorter hours than our contracts state, with data estimating the average employee is only actually productive for 3 hours a day. Although some may argue this is down to procrastination and distraction by colleagues, others say this is simply the maximum time a human's brain can be engaged in 'deep work' (which requires both imagination and concentration on a task) before becoming fatigued. Once we reach this point, many of us move to less productive tasks, which demand less brain power.

In recent years, many employers and employees alike have begun to doubt the merit of the standard 5 day routine, with businesses across the world trialling a new 4 day work week. Some have opted for a shorter week but with 10-hour work days, whilst others have reduced total working hours down to 32 - both with the view of maintaining the same level of productivity.

In theory, if the amount of time spent procrastinating through the week is reduced,  workers should still be able to complete all their duties by working for 4 days at a more intense pace.

Results from pilot studies have been incredibly varied. Many employees report feeling more stressed despite a supposed increase in their recreation time, as they rush to complete the same volume of tasks in a shorter time frame. In public-facing businesses, responses have been mixed as customers struggle to access support due to reduced operating hours.

In a number of trials though, employees have reported increased life satisfaction and improved relationships at home, as they can spend more time actively participating in their families' lives. Working parents experience a cost-saving benefit too, as childcare costs reduce by 20% with one less day in the office.

Given an extra day off, employees also explored hobbies or projects they never previously had time for, with new found motivation for their own learning and personal development.

Although these factors may not appear to benefit employers directly, employees who are well rested and satisfied in their personal life are more likely to return to work refreshed, producing higher quality work as a result. Offering a 4 day week could also help to attract new talent, as many people now expect flexible working options from their employer.

As a result of their pilot studies, most businesses have gone on to implement new processes, but not necessarily a strict 4 day routine. For example, some now offer a 'flexi-day' where employees are not expected to attend meetings or answer emails, which provides them autonomy over their own schedule. In other cases, a 4.5 day work week may be enough to give a team some extra rest, without impacting the flow of their usual work.

The world of work has already experienced huge shifts over the past few years, with remote working becoming an everyday part of many jobs, and employees are likely to continue pushing for more flexibility and greater work life balance in future. The key challenge for businesses will be to ensure that productivity doesn't suffer as a result, which means defining and tracking performance metrics will become even more important.

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