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Four-day work week doesn't have to be a headache

Over three thousand workers, 60 companies and seven months - I don’t think anyone would have predicted that the UK would not just witness, but positively embrace the biggest trial of the four-day working week ever undertaken.

How did we get here? Is this just a fad, brought about by an increase in remote working? Or are we about to see a deeper change?

Shaking up the 9-to-5:

What to expect from the UK's four-day week trial

Nine-day fortnight could be a better alternative to a four-day week

Four-day week needs careful planning to succeed

Hybrid working: building a sustainable long-term strategy

Well, it’s not the first exploration of four day weeks. Studies on these have been happening, on and off, since the 1980s. Though this is certainly one of the most significant.

It's not the only shake-up the workplace has seen over recent years, either.

As we know, the pandemic radically altered the way people worked, and made remote and flexible working not just a possibility, but often the norm. 

But it also prompted a rethink about work more generally. People didn’t just quit jobs in search of better ones, but reconsidered where work sat in their lives and personal priorities. 

Personio’s research earlier this year found this tension is especially acute amongst younger workers. The vast majority of those aged 18-34 say that work/life balance is more important to them now, and a similarly significant number say the pandemic dented their career progression.  

These factors have opened the door to new ways of working. While it’s great to see innovation on this scale, change does not come easy. Especially when employers are looking to get the most out of their people to remain competitive. 

So, how to make shorter weeks work? 

Firstly, to happen smoothly and fairly, the whole of the organisation needs to be on board. If it isn’t, this could unintentionally create an expectation for employees to be on all the time, leading to higher rates of burnout and resentment, and ultimately damaging the company culture and retention of talent. 

In today’s workplace we are fortunate that a wealth of technology allows us to be online whenever we want to be. But, there is an alarming gap between the rapid expansion of this technology, increasing our ability to be online, and the desire for greater work/life balance.

There is a contradiction here that needs to be carefully managed. 

Businesses also need to really understand why their people want a reduced working week. Is this about burnout and needing longer to recuperate?

If so, then it’s important that these issues are addressed from the root cause, not simply masked behind a shorter number of working days. 

Unless the overarching framework changes, and it’s implemented with care throughout a whole company, its impact could be limited. Companies need to look at the structure and format of their business to decide if it will work for them. They need to assess the reach of their company and how they transact business. 

Although the numbers taking part are significant, it will be difficult to gauge the full success or problems of four day weeks until the majority of businesses are working like this. Those in the trial are the outliers, and may struggle when collaborating with those who are not. 

Furthermore, in the current economic context many businesses are having to work even harder just to survive. They may not welcome another added complication to working life. So only time will tell if this pilot remains a privilege of the relatively few, or if it will drive real change. 

But either way, every HR professional will be watching closely to see how this unfolds and what its impact will be. 


Ross Seychell is chief people officer at Personio