Is the popular four-day week with no loss of salary the future of work?

Belmont transitioned to a four-day week last year
Belmont transitioned to a four-day week last year

Working four days a week on full pay is becoming popular in certain sectors, but the model can present challenges as well as benefits. A new trial is looking at whether it is a viable flexible option

The demand for more flexible working has skyrocketed during the pandemic, and with the option to work from home at least part of the time on a permanent basis already now the norm for many businesses, the four-day working week is quickly becoming the next big flexible working movement.

Earlier this month, a pilot kicked off that will see – until December – more than 70 UK businesses trial a four-day week, with no loss in pay for employees.

The trial is coordinated by 4 Day Week Global, in partnership with think tank Autonomy, the 4 Day Week Campaign, and researchers at Cambridge University, Oxford University and Boston College.

It will see 3,300 workers representing more than 30 sectors receiving 100% of the pay for 80% the time in exchange for a commitment to maintain at least 100% productivity.

The concept is arguably more suited to some industries and job functions than others. Last summer, 56% of respondents to a Printweek poll said their company could not feasibly move to a four-day working week.

Without their organisation making a major investment in faster equipment or even robotics and automation tech – which could eradicate the need for operators in the first place– print production staff could not lose a day from their working week and be expected to complete the same amount of work. They are limited to the constraints of the machinery they operate.

Hiring more staff to cover the worker’s lost production day is an option, but is obviously costly, which is why for now the four-day week has proven more popular in non-manufacturing businesses or roles.

This is not always the case, however. Wigan-based packaging manufacturer Belmont Packaging and its e-commerce division Boxed-Up made a full transition to a four-day week last September following a successful trial period that started within Belmont’s manufacturing division in July 2019.

Belmont made the change to give its employees a better work-life balance and improve their wellbeing.

The company, which now only has deliveries and collections four days a week, says it has been a positive move that has given efficiency gains in all aspects of the supply chain.

“Customers are very supportive of the move to a four-day working week and have easily adapted to our new working patten,” says Belmont sales team leader Stacey Galloway.

The business has seen better time management and increased productivity from its staff, while having no machines running on a Friday provides it with the availability to bring in its engineers to complete essential maintenance so it does not have to halt the production chain by stopping the machines during the working week.

“Even if your business is shift-based or a 24-hour, seven days a week operation, you would be able to look at the individual workers’ shifts. The future really is four and we cannot profess the benefits enough,” says Belmont managing director Kate Hulley.

The only print-related company on 4 Day Week Global’s trial is Bookishly, which offers a range of literary inspired products including prints, stationery and clothing subscriptions.

Director Louise Verity says she wanted to be part of the pilot “to contribute to the research that could take the four-day week concept into the mainstream”.

“I really believe that it’s the future of work and I wanted to show that a small business like ours can do it. I’m hoping that the benefits to the team are going to be really clear from the start.

“One day a week less childcare to pay for. One day a week less fuel to get to work. A day to spend on all the life admin we have to do which keeps your weekend free for fun times!”

Productivity is always going to be the main challenge of the four-day week, Verity adds.

“We do need to make sure that orders are going out on time and that our customers hardly notice that we have one less shipping day.

“We have had some frank conversations about productivity – especially regarding using mobile phones during work. We had some group discussions and came up with a plan that seems fair to everyone.

“The incentive to make this work is really strong, so everyone was engaged in thinking up the best ways to structure our day.”

The business has also planned for busy seasonal periods, meaning it will have the four-day week in place for 10 months a year.

“The 7-8 weeks around Christmas that we are really busy, we will work on the fifth day and focus solely on Christmas prep and fulfilment on that day. Our graph peaks so starkly at Christmas that we needed to have a plan for that.”

HR consultancy PTHR has had a “four-day operating week” for nearly two years, with Wednesday being “a hard stop” for the business, although the option is open for people to trade Wednesday for a different day off.

Perry Timms, founder and chief energy officer, says it’s been “a terrific success”.

“We’ve found that energy levels have increased, as have creativity and commitment. We’ve not
sacrificed any attention to anything like learning or social activities – in fact, we’re more mindful of them. And we’re still very flexible and fluid, but the hard stop on Wednesday has absolutely worked for us.”

He says one challenge has been people’s perceptions of the four-day week model.

“It’s not about the number of hours but what you do with it that counts, so it’s about persuading people that this works.”

He concludes: “For some industries it might take more consideration, design and deliberateness than others, but you don’t know until you try.”