The World’s Biggest 4‑Day Work Week Trial Program Begins in the UK
For the next six months, some 3,300 people working in 70 companies across the U.K. are part of the world’s largest trial of a four-day workweek. The hypothesis they have set out to test is one corporate culture has been wary of: to see if working patterns can adapt to shorter work hours while maintaining the same quality of work.
A note on the logistics of the trial first: the companies who have enlisted for these new working patterns vary in disability and income, ranging from a local chippy to large financial firms, the participating workers will face no loss of pay, and the program will go on for six months. During this experiment period, people will receive 100% of their pay for working only 80% of their usual week, in exchange for promising to maintain 100% of their productivity — what is also called the “100:80:100 model.”
In this “historic” trial, researchers from the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge, and Boston College will be examining the sociological impact of allowing three-day weekends to become a norm. What will this look like? They will measure how people respond to the extra day off; what happens to their sleep cycles, burnout, job, and life satisfaction, if they travel more, if they have more energy, and how their health shapes around this new structure. Given how work cultures don’t exist in silos and are sometimes a catalyst for amplifying inequalities, the trial will also measure the impact of the four-day work week on gender equality and the environment.
“The four-day week is generally considered to be a triple dividend policy—helping employees, companies, and the climate. Our research efforts will be digging into all of this.”Juliet Schor, professor of sociology at Boston College and lead researcher on the pilot
To put this in perspective, this is the world’s biggest pilot of the said work schedule and the three-day weekend. But also, it is the first reported trial being conducted in the shadow of the pandemic. The pandemic and Covid19 lockdowns have triggered a deeper reckoning with the existing work culture; critiquing employee burnout, in-office working, and worker exploitation, so much so that briefly this year, millions globally resonated with the “Great Resignation.” It is still unclear how much work reform has happened (if any at all), but there is surely greater recognition that people are not okay, and that work structures play a crucial role in their well-being.
“As we emerge from the pandemic, more and more companies are recognizing that the new frontier for the competition is quality of life, and that reduced-hour, output-focused working is the vehicle to give them a competitive edge,” said Joe O’Connor, chief executive of the not-for-profit group 4 Day Week Global.
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The four-day work week is a mythical legend in the office. Its efficiency has been put to test in isolated pilot programs, the most recent one conducted in Iceland last year — which was an “overwhelming” success. That trial involved more than 2,500 people working in the public sector in Iceland’s capital, Reykjavík; it examined the social impact of workers adopting reduced working hours during 2015 and 2016, before the pandemic. The result presented hopeful news for both the employer and employee: the latter reported lower stress and improved health with no corresponding drop in overall productivity. In some case, people were more productive too.
Like Iceland, and now the U.K., other countries including Australia, the U.S., and New Zealand have undertaken similar government-backed trials to understand the cultural impact of these working patterns. Scotland and Spain are next on the list.
Some companies have tried the four-day week in a scattered way to see how employers and employees interact with each other. Microsoft did one in 2019, which resulted in an increase in employees’ happiness as well as productivity by 40%. “Work a short time, rest well and learn a lot,” said Takuya Hirano, Microsoft Japan’s president and CEO, in a press release. Unilever’s trial is still underway. Panasonic has made a four-day workweek optional for some employees.
There is a churn underway in how we understand work and leisure. The efficacy and impact of four-day work weeks depend severely on a country’s culture, division of labor force, and the idea of productivity, which means it is hard to reach an unequivocal conclusion. For instance, in India, the new labor codes may include permission for companies to opt for four-day workweeks; however, people will be required to work long shifts of 12 hours as opposed to the traditional eight.
But this line of inquiry is instructive in its own way. It pushes us to question the status quo: How do we think of people’s time? Why are there only two days on the weekend? How was this work pattern decided? And, what if, someone went ahead and shaved one day off from the work calendar?