Employment

'Thank God it's Thursday!': Will we have a four-day working week by 2030? Yes, probably

Most British workers will be working four days per week by the end of the decade, according to a leading campaign group.

The four day week campaign are calling for a shorter working week. Credit Four Day Week campaign.

Every week, #FridayFeeling trends on social media. For many British employees, Friday-based affirmations are as much a part of working life as clocking in or moaning about your commute.

It appears that we’re all obsessed with the weekend. Good news, then: for many of us, it’s about to get longer.

Most British workers will be working four days per week by the end of the decade, according to a leading campaign group.

“We’re at the very beginning of society shifting towards this shorter working week,” says Joe Ryle, director of the 4 Day Week campaign. His new book – The 4 Day Week Handbook: Your Guide to Happy Staff, Smarter Working and a Productivity Miracle – comes out on 14 March.

“But the demand is there. I think by the end of the decade, we could see the majority of the workforce working four days instead of five.”

It’s a bold vision, but the research backs it up. Some 12% of UK businesses plan to adopt a four-day working week in 2024, new research has revealed – totalling 660,000 firms, and potentially millions of jobs.

Those that implement a shorter working week tend not to look back. In 2022, some 61 companies – totalling 2,900 employees – trialled the model. Some 92% made it permanent.

“People who try it often find it very hard to imagine going back,” Ryle said. “Hopefully we will reach a tipping point in the coming years.”

What is the four-day working week?

The UK standard for a century, the five-day, 40-hour work week can seem set in stone. But it hasn’t always been this way.

In 1870, industrial employees clocked a gruelling 60-90 hours a week. That’s up to 15 hours a day, six days a week. They had fewer holidays, too; just 14 days off (including public holidays) per year. Now, full-time UK workers enjoy an average of 33.

The 40-hour working week isn’t some natural, pre-set standard, Ryle explains.

“We used to work 60 hours, now we work 40, and we think the natural next step is a reduction to four days, 32 hours,” he says.

This is a crucial aspect of the four-day model; it isn’t about compressing the same number of hours into fewer days. Employees work a total of 32, rather than 40, hours.

Yet despite the reduction in hours, research suggests that worker productivity stays the same.

“Before the [2022] trial, many questioned whether we would see an increase in productivity to offset the reduction in working time – but this is exactly what we found,” sociologist professor Brendan Burchell, who helped conduct the 2022 UK trial, told the Cambridge University Press.

“Many employees were very keen to find efficiency gains themselves.”

Company revenue did not drop – in fact, it increased by an average of 1.4% for the 23 organisations able to provide data. New technology and automation means we can be just as productive in a shorter amount of time.

“The four-day week is an output focused way of working,” Ryle explains. “Why would you do an extra day at work if you don’t get anything done in that time?”

In 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that increasing automation would allow most people to work a 15-hour week. He was right about productivity increases: email, for example, allows us to do something in 30 seconds that previously took 10 minutes.

But these gains haven’t been passed on to workers in the form of more free time.

“Work has changed completely, yet we’re working the same amount that we did in the 1980s,” Ryle says. “We think that needs to change.”

Workers who do get more time off are far happier, too. At the end of the trial, more than two-thirds (71%) of employees said they experienced less “burnout”, and 39% felt less stressed.

Are there any downsides to a four-day working week?

Not everyone is a fan of the four-day week. Last year, then-local government minister Lee Rowley demanded that South Cambridgeshire District Council end its trial of the scheme

“Removing up to 20% of the capacity… is not something which should be acceptable for a council seeking to demonstrate value for money for its taxpayers and residents,” he said.

The council hit back, claiming that they had been able to fill four permanent posts that had remained vacant since the pandemic. But the Tories remained intransigent.

There are other concerns – for example, what do you do about existing part-time workers? There are a number of options, Ryle says, from proportionally reducing their hours to increasing their pay.

And is a four-day week only viable for office workers? What about nurses and teachers?

“There are solutions, like rotating shift patterns, but there is going to have to be coordination by trade unions and government to make it work across the board,” Ryle says.

“These are probably the sectors with strongest possible case for improving the wellbeing of workers. After retirement, the number one reason staff are leaving the NHS is a lack of work-life balance. So you could save many ultimately, because there’s currently an astronomical spend on agency staff in the NHS.”

Transitioning staff to a shorter week can also be difficult logistically. In 2019, the Wellcome Trust scrapped plans to trial a four-day week in 2019 for its 800 head office staff, finding that it would be “too operationally complex.”

But if the Covid-19 pandemic taught us anything, it’s that the world of work can change drastically in the blink of an eye.

Work from home, in the way we know it now, used to be unimaginable,” Ryle says.

“Work can transform pretty quickly. And a change is well overdue… a 40 hour work week doesn’t work on a human level, there’s not enough time for all the other things that we want to do in life.”

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