In U.K. 4-day work week trial, companies see happier employees — and higher productivity
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“I love voles. They’re very elusive creatures,“ declared Joe Dance as he peered into the reeds on the edge of a large lake near Stoke-on-Trent in the English Midlands. “Not many people have seen a water vole. They’re very cute. I hope we get to see one today.”
Dance was looking for any sign of the 400 voles, an endangered species, that he helped to release into the wild as part of a voluntary nature conservation project. “This is the kind of thing that I’ve been doing on my Fridays off now that I’m working just 4 days a week, Monday to Thursday,” he said.
Dance’s employer, the Tyler Grange consulting firm, is one of 70 British firms that took part in a national trial during which a total of 3,000 employees worked a four-day week for full pay. The trial — believed to be the biggest of its kind — lasted six months and was designed to assess the impact of a shorter work week on a company’s output, bottom line and employee morale.
While he welcomed the extra time off to indulge, among other things, his passion for voles, Dance was initially skeptical that the trial would succeed.
“Purely because it’s so ingrained in my brain and everyone else’s: 9 to 5, Monday to Friday,” he said. “To make it work, how do we deliver the same amount of work in only four days?”
His initial skepticism is understandable. To keep the staff on full pay while working one day less a week without denting profits would require a whopping 25% increase in productivity to make up for that missing day. The full results of the trial are not due to be published until February next year, but some early evidence is very promising
“It’s been a fairly incredible success. I mean we’re making more money,” said Tyler Grange’s managing director, Simon Ursell. “We’ve now made the four-day week permanent. We’d be crazy not to. It’s been quite an eye-opener, just how much you can get done if your whole business is really focused on trying to get five days’ work done in four days.”
Ursell said that his staff of 80 completed more work in 20% less time by holding fewer meetings, making those meetings shorter and organizing the week more carefully. The workforce, he said, has been galvanized by the prize of a three-day weekend.
“That gives everyone an incredible sense of purpose and this incredible gift which is … time,” he said.
And it has not created an onerous workload on the days employees are working, he said. Monitoring morale with a daily survey, he found that “the staff were 10% happier and 18% less tired than before.”
Another company that took part in the trial is also enthusiastic about the results. The 5 Squirrels dermatology firm designs, manufactures and markets skincare products with a workforce of 14. Founder and CEO Gary Conway told “Marketplace” that the four-day week had been a rip-roaring success in retaining and recruiting staff in a tight labor market, as well as in terms of making money.
“Revenues up by 40%. Retentions are 100%. Nobody’s left. Recruitment’s become a lot easier. Generally, people seem to be much, much happier,” Conway said.
The steep increase in productivity, he claimed, had been largely due to a more focused approach to work. Meetings are now strictly limited to 30 minutes and must have a clear agenda. Two two-hour-long periods are also set aside each day for what Conway calls “deep work.”
“We switch off our emails, we switch off the phone, we switch off personal phones, we switch off Teams and all other communication devices, just so that we can get into that work. Staff are not allowed to chat or question each other until after deep work time,” he said. “It’s amazing what you can achieve without interruptions and disruptions. Projects that would normally take months and months were getting done in a matter of days.”
This rather ascetic and laser-like focus on work doesn’t sound like much fun, but the atmosphere in the small 5 Squirrels factory seemed relaxed and cheerful. Jade Pagnard, a cosmetics scientist with the firm, insisted she’s happy with the more concentrated four-day week.
“Honestly, so far it’s been really, really nice. Because we have the three-day weekend, we’ve got more time to relax. It works pretty well,” she said.
The upsurge in interest in the shorter work week is clearly one of the many economic legacies of the COVID pandemic and the massive disruption it caused to normal patterns of work. The curmudgeonly response might be to suggest that this is another sign of a decline in Britain’s work ethic, that lockdown and furlough has given the Brits an appetite for more leisure — witness the quiet quitting, the rise in early retirement, the demand for more working from home, and, now, the move toward a shorter work week.
But Joe Ryle, director of the 4 Day Week Campaign, the driving force behind the recent trial, said that shortening the working week is a reform that is long overdue.
“It’s 100 years since the Western World moved from the six-days to five-days work week. And all the huge productivity gains in the meantime have not been passed on to the workers in more leisure time, more free time,” Ryle said, adding that the vast majority of the companies taking part in the trial had seen a big improvement in their productivity — something that the U.K. economy urgently needs.
He’s campaigning for the four-day week to become the norm in the U.K. by the end of this decade.
“It feels like we’re at the start of a movement that is growing and building, and that’s exciting,” Ryle said.
Some professional observers of the U.K. labor market are not so sure that such a radical and comprehensive shift in work patterns is underway.
“I don’t think we’re going to quite get there,” said Jon Boys, labor market economist with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.
“You have to remember that the 70 companies taking part in the trial were self-selected, and therefore ready to make the leap into this kind of working,” he said. “Whether you could scale that up to the whole economy is another question. And will the productivity improvement at the 70 firms be sustained once the pressure of the trial is off?”
Boys is enthusiastic about the trial, however, because it could help the participating firms find new and better ways of running their businesses. And, in the admittedly unlikely event that the experience of the two firms featured in this article were replicated across the U.K. and in much larger companies, it would be truly transformative for the whole country.
“We’re in an economy that barely manages to scrape a 1% or 2% improvement in productivity,” he said. “A 25% gain in one fell swoop would solve all our economic problems.”
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