If you lived in the 19th century and worked in manufacturing, you’d be looking at a working week of between 60 to 90 hours, according to research from the University of Groningen. These days, thankfully, things look a bit brighter. While working weeks differ across the EU—France famously has a 35-hour week—in general European staff can’t work more than 48 hours per week on average, including overtime.
This means that we are now working between 50% and 125% less than we would have been in the 1800s—and the better news is that workers’ conditions have continued to improve.
Weekly working hours took a dive following World War I, when US car manufacturer Henry Ford famously introduced the five-day, 40-hour work week in 1926. It caught on, and is the foundation upon which most contemporary workers have built their careers upon.
Now though, the times they are a-changin’—again.
Thanks to advocacy platforms such as 4-Day Week Global and think-tank Autonomy, and the sea change that has come about due to remote working during the pandemic, we could be looking at another radical shift in the way we work.
As far back as the 1930s, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that technological advancements would eventually lead to a 15-hour work week. While his prediction hasn’t (yet) proven true, the results of the world’s largest four-day working week trial were recently published, and they revealed overwhelmingly positive outcomes.
The trial took place in the UK from June to December 2022 and saw 61 companies with approximately 2,900 workers adopt a four-day week adopting 4-Day Week Global’s 100-80-100 model—100% of the pay, for 80% of the time, in exchange for a commitment to delivering 100% of the output.
Definitely want to continue
The results speak for themselves: 92% of participating organisations are continuing with a four-day week, a further 4% are leaning towards continuing, and only 4% of participants are definitely not continuing. Additionally, 90% of employees said they definitely want to continue working four days a week.
Other successes included a revenue rise of 1.4% on average over the trial, and when compared to a similar period from previous years, organisations reported revenue increases of 35%, on average.
Additionally, the number of staff leaving fell by 57%, and 55% of workers reported an increase in their abilities at work. Fifteen percent said that no amount of money would make them accept a five-day schedule at their next job.
The UK-based Everledger, Evolution Money in Manchester, Kent-located Charity Bank and Liverpool’s Stellar Asset Management, all participated in the most recent trial. As part of a previous study in 2021, Atom Bank––a branch-free bank built for smartphones—was, at the time, the largest UK business and the first UK bank to trial a four day week.
The move saw Atom’s team switch to working 34 hours with no loss of pay. “It’s clear that it has been a huge success for our business and our people. We are extremely proud of how our employees have adapted and the benefit it has brought to many,” said Anne-Marie Lister, chief people officer at Atom bank.
Atom found that 91% of workers said they were able to get everything done within four days, and the bank also noticed that its operational productivity increased. It’s a good indicator for other companies who may follow suit. “We believe most organisations can move to a four-day week and we hope Atom’s experiences will encourage more businesses to make the shift permanently,” Lister said.
Not for everyone
While a four-day work week appears to be, on the face of it, a great idea, it isn’t something that can work for all industries or all businesses. Many manufacturing roles, service jobs, or purely customer-facing roles may find it to be unworkable.
Of the 61 companies which participated in the recent study, Professor Juliet Schor of Boston College, the lead researcher on the trial, points out that “Results are largely steady across workplaces of varying sizes, demonstrating this is an innovation which works for many types of organisations.”
But getting there can be a headache. The switch involves huge commitment to change an organisational culture to an 100-80-100 model, and can lead to stress, burnout, disconnect, and scheduling conflicts. Companies also have to choose what works best for them: reduced hours every day for all staff, or Mondays or Fridays off for set teams, to ensure business continuity across the full work week.
Rethinking priorities has to be at the start of any discussion about moving to a four-day week. Companies—and workers—need to look at the optimum end goal and then work backwards to see how it can be achieved with reduced hours.
Scheduling less meetings can be one way to take back time. For example, all public sector employees in Iceland work 35 hours, which was achievable by cutting meetings back in favour of email.
Australia has just gotten on board with the concept too, with its government releasing a recommendation that stated, “The committee recommends the Australian Government undertake a four-day week trial based on the 100:80:100 model […]. The trial should be implemented in diverse sectors and geographical locations.”
It is clear that, despite challenges, there is an appetite for new ways of working—whether that’s in terms of allowing employees full flexibility to determine their day, or moving an entire business to a four-day week.
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