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Four-day week: what happens after a successful trial?

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 27 Apr 2023

More than 60 companies and almost 3,000 workers recently completed a six-month trial of a four-day working week, on full pay. We spoke to one of the firms that took part.

Last year saw the beginning of a pilot programme trialling a four-day week on the 100:80:100 basis – that is, 100% of pay for 80% of the time, in exchange for a commitment to maintain 100% productivity. The aim of this, the world’s largest such trial so far, was to demonstrate the benefits of reduced-hour, output-focused working.

Overall results show that almost every participating organisation will stick with the new working practice, with 91% definitely continuing or planning to continue, and a further 4% leaning towards continuing. Only 4% of participants said they would definitely not continue.

Companies rated their overall experience of the trials an average of 8.5/10, with business productivity and business performance each scoring 7.5/10. Revenue rose by 35% over the trial periods when compared with similar periods from the previous year, and hiring increased while absenteeism decreased.

Asked what they had learned from the trial, organisers 4 Day Week Global and one of the participating firms, Stellar Asset Management, said planning and communication are key to success. “When we first announced it, the team was agog,” says Jonathan Gain, Stellar’s Chief Investment Officer and CEO. “They didn’t know whether we were being serious or not. But within a very short space of time there was a real, positive buzz about the opportunity. 

“We’re a service-based industry, so our office needs to be open five days a week, eight till six,” Gain adds. “This isn’t about closing a day and losing a day. People recognised that this was an evolution. It’s not about squeezing it all in – it’s about how we can be more productive and more efficient. What are the tools you need to do what you do more effectively? What would you do differently? There was a galvanisation around creative thinking.”

Dale Whelehan, behavioural scientist and CEO of 4 Day Week Global, believes the process re-establishes a psychological contract between employer and employee. “You’re saying to your staff, we’re giving you 20% more free time in return for 100% of the productivity, and we will work with you in partnership to try to figure out how we can make this work for both of us.”

Stellar’s Investment Manager David Stein adds: “We’d already asked our employees to participate in a leadership development programme back in 2021, and the four-day week became a real-life case study for the group who put themselves forward to participate.”

That group was split into three sub teams, each focused on specific outcomes: one team was focused on the organisation, looking at how to maintain five days of service and make the transition seamless enough for clients not to notice. A second team was focused on productivity and efficiency, putting in a framework to try and measure productivity across each of the different teams. The third team focused on reporting and communication of the productivity measurements, both internally to the leadership team and externally. 

This planning stage is vital to making the change work, says Whelehan. “So many organisations don’t know what productivity looks like for them. They’ve never had that conversation with themselves or with their staff. So the default is that time on task or just time is the productivity measure.”

As with any change in working practice, its effectiveness can be derailed by poor leadership, poor culture, poor processes, poor technology and poor communication, Whelehan warns. “What we tried to do as part of the pilot is make sure that those fundamentals are right – and that they become embedded in organisations. It should be a policy and a directive, but it should ultimately be team led. And organisations that allow that voice of the people to be embedded in their ways of working are the ones that are realising the benefits and staying on board.”

Gain says that communication has been a strong driver and the organisation has also seen upticks in terms of health and wellbeing. “There have been far fewer sick days. I think lots of companies were reporting about a 60% improvement in wellness measurements and we were comfortably higher than that, probably closer to 80%.”

An aversion to change from a small minority was addressed with regular one-on-one chats for everyone in the company. “From those we gleaned if there were any issues, and we were able to tackle them directly,” says Gain. 

The other measure of success is recruitment and retention. Stellar took on four people during the trial, all of whom have compared what’s on offer with other firms. “The softer offerings as opposed to pure hard financial ones have been really well regarded,” says Gain. “And in at least two instances, I’ve had direct feedback that this has been absolutely intrinsic to them joining.”

Despite overwhelming success, Whelehan agrees with the decision by some participants to extend the trial rather than formally adopt the four-day working week. “There is a possibility that the effectiveness of a change like this could wane beyond the initial spike of positive interest,” he explains. 

“Organisations take a long time to change, and you can’t properly measure the effectiveness of an intervention based on January to June if your July to December looks very different business-wise. I think a lot of participants just want that year-long reflection to see, as well as that support from the network to figure it out.”

Looking at the barometers of success and deciding what to do next were the reasons behind Stellar’s decision to extend the trial for a further six months. The company is looking at how the scheme will evolve in the future. Says Gain: “We’re not necessarily calling it a four-day week anymore. We’re calling it flexible working, but the parameters and philosophy are still the same. So we’ve extended the working practices for a further six months, with a view to making a final decision.”

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