Is the 4 day working week feasible?

Is it possible to get the same amount of work done in less hours?
10 June 2022

Interview with 

Brendan Burchell, University of Cambridge

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5 days a week, 9 to 5 - that is the employment pattern most jobs have adopted ever since its introduction in the 1920s. In the century that's followed, productivity has soared but working hours have remained the same. And with the pandemic provoking many to reconsider their priorities in life, old working patterns have started to be questioned. Can employees maintain 100% of their output for 100% of their wages but work 80% of the time instead? That is the hypothesis being tested in a new trial which began for some UK businesses this week. Julia Ravey spoke to Brendan Burchell, from the University of Cambridge, who is monitoring the trial data, to find out more…

Brendan - We've got a big trial in the UK. It's following the model in other countries. We've got 70 employers covering about 3000 employees who all are going to go down to a working time reduction model. Typically it'll be a 20% reduction in their working week while aiming that people shouldn't get a pay cut and will be just as productive as they were before. They'll be doing the same amount of work, but working smarter and getting it done by Thursdays, so they can have a three day weekend.

Julia - So you're getting a bit less time in work, but the expectation is to have the same output. Is there a science behind that being possible?

Brendan - We've got some experience of other organisations who have experimented with this and overall, the results seem to be very positive. People really enjoy having that extra leisure time. Being able to have a more relaxed weekend, being able to do things in their own time and realising that there are ways in which they could work more effectively. Whether it can work in all situations, how we need to tailor it to different situations, what sort of mentoring and assistance we can give to organisations; those are still open questions and we'll know the answer to lots of these things in six months or so when the trial ends.

Julia - And how are you going to monitor the success of the trial?

Brendan - We're taking lots of different measures. But for instance, for productivity, we rely on organisations to define the output themselves. What is the most important output they want? Is it to do with the profit? Is it to do with the quality of their service? We'll use their own metrics. We'll also be looking at the employee's wellbeing, looking at their mental health, and also trying to get some indication of the carbon footprint that we are hoping is going to be improved by these changes to people's working lives.

Julia - Was this an opt-in process?

Brendan - It was, and there's been publicity around a small number of organisations in the UK that have done this. It's interesting just how much interest this has had both from employees, but also from employers.

Julia - On the employer side of things, I was surprised that so many were keen on it. Have any had the attitude of "if my employees can do it in four days, I should just pay them for four days"?

Brendan - I haven't come across that. Again, they're all different. Employers tend to be very proud of what they're doing and want to work with employees on this, that's the impression we're getting from talking to the employers anyway. Sometimes it's because they want to recruit and they were finding it difficult to recruit and thought that would be one way that could really attract the best talent. In other cases, it was because they were particularly in the business of welfare. And in some cases, the profit motive wasn't the main thing that they were interested in. They were more interested in their service to the local community and in how they treated their employees.

Julia - This type of trial can apply to many different industries. Are there any industries which would struggle to adopt this? I'm thinking like the healthcare industry, because at the minute, in the UK at least, we're massively understaffed with healthcare. Would we have to up the staff numbers to maintain this type of model?

Brendan - Certainly there are some sorts of employers that can do it more easily, that's our experience so far. Particularly when you've got professionals working quite autonomously like architects or people doing programming. And often people's initial reaction when I tell them about this is "well, you couldn't do it in hospitals", for instance. But of course, when you think about it, hospitals, typically in some parts of them anyway, do run 24/7, but nobody's expected to be there for the whole time. You are trying to run a seven day service using typically people working five days at eight hours a day. So it's actually relatively easy to think how you'd modify that. As you say, there are recruitment problems and staff shortages in lots of parts of the UK economy at the moment. There's also lots of people who I think would be better off if they had some work and if work was made available to them, instead of only in a full-time manner, but where they could get good quality jobs, that would also allow them more time off to do whatever they want to do. So if we can provide work to people that allows them a better work life balance, then I'm hoping that we get a lot more people who are currently out of the labour market into work.

Julia - Are you working a four day week at the minute?

Brendan - No, I reduced my hours down to three days a week, that year and a half ago with the university. I definitely have been enjoying a slightly more relaxed pace of work, spending a lot more time with my grandchildren. Yes, I definitely recommend it.

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