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Are 4-day working weeks the new normal?

From Australia to the US and UK, the idea of a four-day working week with no loss of pay is suddenly in vogue. An alignment of three factors goes a long way to explaining why this has happened. 

First, Covid put a wrecking ball through many conventions about work, especially but not exclusively white-collar work. Notions of where and how it could be done were freed from the constraints of presenteeism and low-trust relationships.

Second, employers and workers realised that more flexible forms of work were leading to improvements in productivity, something of a Holy Grail issue for industry generally.

And third, a shortage of skilled labour forces employers to look carefully for anything that lowers employee churn.

This win-win of higher productivity (for employers) and better work-life balance (for workers) is not new. 

Shorter Working Week arrangements in the form so-called “9 day fortnights” “fourteen day three weeks” and “three day weekends” (the latter being three 12 hour working days over a Friday, Saturday and Sunday) have existed for decades – but have not spread out widely from the recesses or silos where they were found.

But securing the undoubted advantages of 4 day working weeks is not always straightforward. 

If you are a service provider, will customers and clients accept 4-day working weeks?  How do you resource five (or even 7) day cover in such situations?

And are pay rates so low (or the cost of living so high) that employees want that fifth day to maximise earnings, even if they have already completed their full weeks’ hours by day 4?

So how will the 4-day working week be structured?   “Carefully” has to be the answer: there are so many variables. Success is not guaranteed.

The approach will vary if Saturday and/or Sunday are considered normal working days.  Is the four-day working week associated with a reduction in hours? Or a wider change in working practices?  Are the non-work days fixed or rolling?   Part of the care in constructing shorter working weeks is to have a conversation with the people most impacted by it.

While shorter working weeks are not necessarily a panacea for workplace productivity, when they work well, potential benefits are spread widely:  Lower office costs and utility bills, reduced commuting and childcare costs, additional time for employees to spend on entertainment and services. And, some have argued, lower absenteeism and fewer long term health conditions.

The key question is that for all the good ideas, good will, and conscientious planning, will employees end up working these four-day weeks?  The jury is not so much out as barely sworn in, but the issue is certainly now firmly in the mainstream,  With large employers pressing ahead with expanded trials, some in an internationally co-ordinated format, the answer is “Yes, probably. For some.” 

However, Timewise’s latest Flexible Jobs Index shows that only 3 out of 10 jobs are advertised as having some form of flexibility. There is obviously some difference between “flexibility” and 4-day working weeks, but it does show very significant remaining inflexibility in our attitude to working patterns – with, according to a Resolution Foundation report launched this week,  lower earners enjoying much less control/choice over this than the better paid.

Welcome to the new normal? Not quite yet.

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