People & Leadership

The four-day working week: What HR and People leaders need to know

Is the four-day working week really the silver bullet for increasing productivity at work? Find out everything you need to know.

We’re all obsessed with telling people how busy we are.

We love to wax lyrical about how there are never enough hours in the day for everything we need to do.

However, this can heavily impact on many employees’ holy grail: work-life balance.

Yet, longer hours don’t necessarily mean greater productivity. In fact, our research revealed that one in three full-time employees admit to being productive for less than 30 hours a week.

That’s a whole day lost to lack of productivity per working week.

In fact, despite working the longest hours in Europe, Britain is among the least productive.

The US sits at number eight on the productivity ranking by hours worked – much higher than the UK, but still has some way to knocking Luxembourg off the top spot.

So, are we better losing that fifth day at work all together?

A four-day working week not only makes workers happier, but more productive too according to recent studies. And vitally, 51% of employees say they’d welcome a four-day working week.

And with more than 3,300 employees from 70 UK businesses participating in a four-day work week trial, which began in June 2022 and runs for six months, the topic is certainly on the radar.

Here’s everything HR and People leaders need to know about a four-day working week.

Here’s what we cover:

What does a four-day working week mean?

It means exactly what it says on the tin. Instead of the traditional five-day working week, employees would work four days instead.

In the UK there’s a four-day working week campaign that believes “a four-day week will benefit our society, our economy, our environment and our democracy”.

It has the backing of many organisations and unions, including the UK’s Trade Union Council (TUC), which says reducing working time for workers, employers and the country as a whole has the potential to bring about huge benefits that ultimately bolster the economy.

However, it’s not just the UK pushing the four-day week agenda. A growing number of countries are facing calls that the four-day week is the answer to increased productivity.

Member Masterclass

Get business advice from the world's leading experts, which will help you improve how you run your company.

Find out more
Sage Member Masterclass

How could a four-day week help the economy?

The Institute for Labor Economics says working longer invokes the law of diminishing returns, with productivity dropping after the 35th hour of weekly work.

Aidan Harper, a researcher at the New Economics Foundation, says there’s a clear relationship between overwork, poor wellbeing, mental illness and poor productivity.

“All of these things are very, very closely linked, and overwork is pretty awful for you in terms of mental health and your ability to a) work quickly and b) produce a high quality of work,” he explains.

What examples are there of the four-day week working successfully?

In the US, a technology start-up called Wildbit, founded by former Google employees, switched to a four-day week after its CEO, Natalie Nagele, learnt that most people can only really do around four hours of meaningful, cognitively focused work in a day.

“I looked at that and said, okay, as a team, where can we cut back,” she explains. “If we can do the same work in 32 hours and get an extra day off, that would be beneficial to our personal lives and our ability to recharge, so let’s just test it out.”

Scottish firm Pursuit Marketing also implemented a four-day working week and said the switch to four days led to a staggering 30% increase in productivity.

Possibly one of the most surprising examples of the four-day week is for Japanese car company, Toyota. Its Swedish car factory saw increased customer satisfaction alongside higher productivity.

The factory cut its staff’s weekly hours from 40 to 30 hours and saw an uplift of 114% of what they used to produce, which increased profits by 25%.

The managing director of the factory, Martin Banck, said there’s been significant positive change as a result of the shift to shorter hours.

He said: “Staff feel better, there is lower turnover and it is easier to recruit new people. They have a shorter travel time to work, there is more efficient use of the machines and lower capital costs—everyone is happy.”

What do HR and People teams need to know to implement a four-day working week?

For companies considering the swap to a four-day working week, the advice is to implement a trial before pushing out company wide.

Perpetual Guardian said it would be switching to a four-day week following a successful eight-week trial, finding that it increased productivity by 20%.

Whether a four-day working week is right for your company depends on many factors:

  • Do employees want to reduce their hours?
  • How would working different, or longer hours, affect childcare?
  • Is your business set up to allow for this different working pattern?
  • Would you be able to implement this fairly across all areas of the company?

Flexibility is a fantastic benefit that many employees look for from their employer, so having this as an option should make your company more desirable to talent.

In addition, switching to a four-day working week could be a big change, so you might want to consider other options that allow for greater flexibility within your workforce as well as, or instead of a four day working week.

For example, do you offer the option of working compressed hours? What is your approach to working from home? Can you support working parents with more flexible hours that fit in around school times and vacations?

Many employers can look at these areas to support their workforce to become happier and more productive – without necessarily having to switch to a four-day working week.

The role of HR tech

Key to the success of companies that have implemented a four-day working week has been the use of data.

Assessing productivity and engagement levels from a trial of a four-day week is a must. To do that, companies need an HR system that gives them powerful insights at their fingertips, to make truly data-informed decisions.

However, today, less than 60% of HR teams using HR data.

Find out more about the role of analytics and how actionable insights can make a business case more powerful than ever.

Is a four-day working week the future of work?

The way we work is changing.

However, it’s not about jumping headfirst into the four-day week. Although it’s a great benefit for attracting talent, think about your current employees first.

Ask them what would make them more productive; don’t assume this is what they want. It’s not the only way to create a better work-life balance for your employees.

Would they rather be given the flexibility to manage their own hours across the week? Would they rather work from home? The only way you’ll know the answer to these questions is if you ask them.

Editor’s note: This article was first published in November 2020 and has been updated for relevance.