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Guide for Employers: Switching to a four-day working week

The Covid-19 global pandemic has forced employers to adapt the way they had previously worked, and it has left employers and employees considering whether there are more effective ways and patterns of working to maximise productivity and achieve the optimal work/life balance.

In January 2022, 30 UK firms commenced a six-month trial led by 4 Day Week Global, with staff completing their usual weekly workload, up to 35 hours each week, split over four rather than five working days. This might lead to you asking yourself ‘should my business consider introducing a four-day working week?’. If this is something you may be considering, our article below explores some of the possible benefits, drawbacks and points to consider before you decide to implement this change.

What are some of the benefits of a four-day working week?

Naturally, each business is different and whether a four-day working week is a feasible working pattern for all or some of your workforce is entirely dependent on the role(s) being performed and whether sufficient coverage of work is possible. However, some more generalised benefits of a four-day working week might include:

  • Recruitment of top talent – some of the best candidates for roles you are trying to fill might have caring responsibilities or disabilities which mean that a more flexible working pattern would be advantageous to them. So, to be able to offer a compressed working week could give you a competitive advantage and allow you to hire from a wider pool of talent.
  • Success of previous trials - trials of the four-day week are set to take place in the USA, Canada, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand, but early research from Iceland between 2015-2019 found employees to be in favour of the four-day week and researchers have reported the trial to have been an ‘overwhelming success’ as productivity was the same or increased. Further, in August 2019, Microsoft Japan implemented a four-day week giving their 2,300 employees five Fridays off in a row. The result of this was that productivity jumped 40 per cent, and job satisfaction of workers increased and so they took less time off. Nine out of ten employees in that pilot said they preferred the four-day week, so implementing this change is likely to encourage goodwill and loyalty from employees towards your business.
  • Improved employee wellbeing – a compressed working week should leave staff with more hours to focus on their physical and mental health. We may have to await the results of later studies for firmer evidence, but this is also likely to reduce working days lost to sickness absence. This can also assist staff who have caring responsibilities to juggle with working hours. These individuals may feel more able to focus fully on work during the compressed working week in the knowledge that they will have a further day every week to fulfil other tasks outside of work.
  • Reduced employee costs – employee goodwill towards your business is also likely to be generated by a four-day working week, due to the reduced time and costs of commuting and other costs associated with travelling to and from work being cut by a fifth.
  • Reduced office costs – as well as a reduction in the cost of hiring office space, if this is the way you operate your business, by working more efficiently over four days rather than five, you could also reduce office costs. In the Microsoft Japan trial mentioned above, there was a 23 per cent reduction in weekly electricity use and a 59 per cent decrease in the number of pages printed by employees, even though general productivity increased. These and other savings over the course of a year or more, really do add up.
  • Efficiency – employees are likely to assist you in looking for as many efficiency saving opportunities as possible to enable them to get the same amount of work, or more, done in the up to 35 hours per week they work over four days. This means that staff are likely to become more efficient with their time, which will bring wider benefits to your business.
  • Wider economic benefits – a four-day week will enable people to have more leisure time to shop, eat out or take long weekend breaks, meaning the four-day week derives wider benefits, which depending on your sector could be beneficial for your business by other businesses deciding to introduce this working pattern.
  • Wider environmental benefit – reducing the necessity to travel to and from work five days per week coupled with reduced energy usage could reduce carbon footprint.

What might be some of the drawbacks of switching to a four-day working week?

Again, it may be that these generalised disadvantages are not a concern for your business or there may be other specific negative impacts of a four-day week on your business, but drawbacks may include:

  • It may not be possible for your business - in some customer facing jobs where the expectation is coverage during all normal working hours it just may not be possible to offer this pattern of working to employees as quality of service would be too greatly impacted, especially if you have a small team. This would not be something within your business’ control but may mean it is more difficult for you to attract staff if they would rather work where this type of flexible working pattern is offered.
  • It could mean further costs for your business – if your business’ employment contracts make provision for overtime payments, these may be a prohibitive cost for your business. A trial of the four-day working week in France found staff were working the same number of hours with a day fewer and companies were having to pay them for their extra time to finish work not completed during the shorter proposed week. There is a financial disincentive for employees to finish work efficiently in these circumstances, which may make employees less productive if they are content to work five days per week.
  • Employees may struggle to fit their week’s work into four days – this may not be something which all employees welcome, they may become unduly stressed if they have to compress all their work into four days instead of five and may prefer to spread their work out and ensure that quality is not affected by rushing work.
  • Employees may find this more difficult to fit around their existing work/life routine – some employees may have perfected their routine over time and now feel they have the right balance and have made arrangements in other aspects of their life, whether this be leisure activities after work or childcare. So, to disrupt that may be something which is unwelcome by these employees.
  • Complexity of implementation – it may be complicated within your business structure and with the people you employ to implement a fair four-day working week system which all employees will be happy to agree to. As a change to working days and hours is a change to an employee’s contract of employment, it is important to seek legal advice at any early stage, which is something our employment solicitors can help you with. You will need to consult with employees and ensure you do not discriminate against certain groups, such as those who work part time. Before any change is implemented, you will want to:
    • give careful consideration as to how best to implement the change;
    • consult with workers about the changes and provide them with notice (unless agreed otherwise); and
    • amend hours policies and entitlements.
  • Greater difficulties in managing a team – similarly to the comments made in our article about some of the challenges of home working - having a team who really know each other and the roles each one performs, as well as training and mentoring more junior staff, may be more difficult if some staff members are working a different four-day week pattern to others in their team. It is also likely that employees will want a Monday or Friday off, but if all employees want the same time off, how can the business be operational during those times? A rotation system might be fair but again could be complex to administer for both employer and employee.

How to implement a four-day working week for my business

If you are just setting up a new business and want to hire based on a four-day working week, the situation is simple - you can offer this pattern of working during your recruitment process and if this attracts the applicants you wish to hire, you can just draft the four-day working week into the contract accordingly.

The situation is a little more complicated if you already have employees working different days and hours to that which you are now looking to propose.

Below are some key points you may want to consider:

  • Assess whether a four-day working week could suit your business needs. Is it actually possible to offer employees this working pattern? If yes, is it desirable for your business, your employees or both? This may involve some consultation with all or at least a cross section of your employees to canvass opinion.
  • Think on a practical level how any proposed changes will operate and whether your plans will enable sufficient coverage to meet business need. Resources will need to be adequate throughout service times to complete the same or more volume of work as the previous working pattern enabled.
  • If you have any reservations about how the new working pattern will work, such as how well performance might be managed or mentoring of less senior staff, consult and carefully consider at management level how these drawbacks might be minimised and set clear, objective policies and performance targets. If you require assistance with the drafting or updating of your policy documents for this purpose, our employment solicitors can help.
  • If you are unsure as to how successful the new working pattern will be, you could trial this for a set period of say three or six months and then consult with employees and, if impacted, with customers. This will give the business the opportunity to see whether the new system is working; whether there are minor improvements which can be made; or whether the system does not work and you should revert to the previous pattern of working, before this is rolled out on a more permanent basis.
  • If there may be a negative impact on customers as a result of the proposed changes to working patterns, careful thought will need to be given as to how customers will be affected, the extent of the impact and how any negative impact can be mitigated. It is advisable to consider how the changes will be communicated to customers, in advance of any changes.
  • Consider how compressed hours would be best implemented. As discussed above, you may want to seek legal advice on the point of fairness to all employees, and consultation generally about a temporary or permanent change to this aspect of employee contracts of employment. We have written an article that offers guidance about changing terms, but for specific advice, please contact our specialist employment solicitors. This is particularly important if some employees are in opposition to your plans or if you cannot accommodate the working patterns some employees are requesting.

Whether or not you choose to introduce a four-day working week, it can be helpful in the ever-changing economy and employment market to look at ways in which your business can evolve and change its pattern of work to maximise benefit for your business, employees and customers alike. For more specific advice on different options you might want to trial for your business, our employment solicitors can help.

About our expert

Ella Bond

Ella Bond

Senior Employment Law Solicitor
Ella joined Harper James as a Senior Solicitor in January 2020, having previously worked at top 50 West Midlands law firm Shakespeares (now Shakespeare Martineau). Having qualified in 2007, she is highly experienced in the field of Employment Law, working with a vast range of clients from start-ups to large national and multi-national companies.

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