Following the end of the UK’s four-day work week trial involving 70 companies and 3,300 workers, one hundred UK companies have decided to implement a permanent four-day work week. This is another move towards greater flexibility in working practices - a trend that we are seeing around the world. For example, in November 2021, Belgium granted its workers the right to work four rather than five days, but unlike the UK model, employees must still work the same number of hours compressed into four days per week. Following encouraging results from its New Zealand pilot, last month Unilever announced it will begin a four-day work week trial in Australia. It took the same approach as the UK model such that employees retain 100% of salary, work 80% of the time and, crucially, maintain 100% of output.
The benefits seen by employers adopting the four-day work week reportedly include lower sickness levels, greater staff retention and improved customer service. For employers unable to offer competitive remuneration packages struggling to recruit top talent in today’s tight labour market, the four-day work week could also be a tempting recruitment tool.
However, careful thought and planning is needed before employers rush to implement a four-day work week in their own organisation. Employers need to think about how they expect employees to achieve the same output in 20% less time and the impact that this could have on their wellbeing. If the drive for efficiency results in less time for socialising and engagement with colleagues along with higher stress levels, this will inevitably have an impact on employees’ mental health. If employees will only be able to continue working a four-day week for as long as they maintain their productivity levels then employers need to think about how they will go about measuring that productivity and what action they will take if it drops.
Part-time employees also need to be factored into any plans to move to a four-day work week, as they have statutory protection from being treated less favourably than full-time employees because of the fact that they work part-time. Part-time employees should therefore see a proportionate reduction to their working hours on the same terms as their full-time colleagues.
For employers keen to trial a four-day work week we suggest introducing a non-contractual policy which sets out the clear parameters of the arrangement, e.g. for how long the arrangement will initially be in place, any applicable conditions, what will be expected of employees on their non-working day and the right of the employer to amend or withdraw the policy at its discretion.
For now, it is a small fraction of UK employers adopting the four-day work week and while this is an exciting move it won’t impact the working lives of the vast majority of UK employees and employers anytime soon. Something likely to have a more immediate, but admittedly less radical, impact on the future workplace is the Government’s recently published response to its 2021 consultation on flexible working practices which, among other things, sets out its intention to make the right to make a flexible working request a day one right, to allow employees to made two flexible working requests per year and to require employers to discuss alternative options with the employee if it intends to reject the request. It seems inevitable that once legislation is passed to implement these changes employers will see an increase in flexible working requests, which will need to be dealt with in accordance with any new rules.