A four-day working week would be affordable to most UK firms with 50 or more staff, according to a new report from workplace wellbeing campaigners Autonomy.
In The Day After Tomorrow: stress tests, affordability and the roadmap to the four-day week, the think tank conducted a UK-first study of profitability data from 50,000 leading firms in the context of a hypothetical shift to a shorter working week. On the basis of that analysis, it concluded, if such a shift happened immediately, the majority of those firms would still be in profit. (Autonomy, 29 December 2020)
In Autonomy’s view, the Covid-19 crisis has changed the terms of the debate around a four-day week – particularly as the pandemic has driven a surge in working from home. The report notes: “An upshot of this, at least for office-based work, is that managers are realising that more flexible work patterns are not only possible, but can be beneficial for wellbeing and productivity.
“This effect of the crisis, which in many ways is a positive development, has followed longstanding demands for lower and more flexible work-hours.”
Autonomy suggests that a shift to a four-day week in the private sector could be prepared for with the aid of an earlier transition in the public sector that would serve as an example and blueprint for businesses to follow. It also says that a steady addition of further UK bank holidays could speed up “the process of changing expectations and behavioural norms” in the public consciousness.
The think tank’s only major caveat is that if a four-day week were implemented too quickly, some firms in high-labour cost industries could experience cash-flow problems.
Autonomy director of research Will Stronge said: “Any policy push will have to be carefully designed, and different strategies would need to be deployed for different industries. However, what is remarkable is that if it happened overnight, with no planning, most firms would still remain profitable.
“The four-day week is picking up momentum across the world post Covid-19 and we’re calling on the government to begin investigating the best options for rolling it out.”
In parallel with Autonomy’s report, flexible working and the four-day week were on the minds of workplace thought leaders in the final stretch of 2020. In a tweet, entrepreneur Chris Herd – founder of remote-teams support network FirstbaseHQ.com – cited recent research showing that 90% of people never want to work in an office again. (Chris Herd via Twitter, 28 December 2020; Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research, August 2020)
Herd’s figure was quoted in a subsequent tweet from wellbeing expert Julia Hobsbawm, saying: “If @chris_herd research of 1500 does show that 90% of ‘people never want to work full-time in an office again’ – then maybe 2021 will be the year that the @4Day_Week gains traction: back to Kellogg’s famous six hour day?” (Julia Hobsbawm via Twitter, 29 December 2020)
Could 2021 be the four-day week’s breakthrough year?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “What the quick switch to homeworking has delivered is an understanding of how work can be done differently. For many people now, work has been reframed as a thing you do, not a place you go. But importantly, that is not the case for everyone. Often, when we hear reports of individuals who have made it work, they are based in particular sectors that are delivering particular services that don’t rely upon the physical presence of the service providers at specific locations.”
She notes: “This is not to say that adopting a four-day week – if we are able to harness the learnings and technologies that have helped us through the past 10 months – is unfeasible for many organisations. In terms of work-life balance and wellbeing, it certainly has its fair share of advocates. And given the successes we have witnessed in countries such as New Zealand – where financial services firm Perpetual Guardian shifted permanently to a four-day week following the positive results of a pilot scheme – we can conclude that the arrangement will continue to gain momentum.”
However, she points out: “There is a big question mark over how the four-day week will translate to other sectors that are not so readily able to make the transition. In those industries, productivity may be measured differently – for example, by the number of calls made, or customers served. So how are organisations in those sectors going to manage the switch? If more and more traditionally office-based workers are set to benefit from a four-day week, does that automatically mean that other types of companies will be able to offer it their employees?
“It’s also important to note that when we at the Institute examined flexible working in our own research, we found that it tends to be the higher-paid, more senior staff who are able to take advantage of hours designed to fit in with the non-work demands in their lives. So yes, we can make the four-day week work in many industries – and indeed we should, if there are obvious benefits to realise in terms of work-life balance and wellbeing. But the challenge is, how do we manage that across the board?”
Cooper adds: “I was recently interviewed alongside Paul Hamer, CEO of Sir Robert McAlpine – a major firm in the construction sector. That’s a classic example of an industry in which many staff are unable to work from home. Hamer noted that his company has to think very carefully about how to factor in people who aren’t readily able to work flexibly, and how you manage that for everyone. In his view, there has to be a clear Why, or rationale, behind those day-to-day aspects of how his firm operates.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on leading change