Pros and cons of four-day week

Labour party plans for a four-day week have been criticised by a think tank which claims the impact on productivity would cost up to £17bn a year, but there are advantages of offering a more flexible work environment to employees 

The Centre for Policy Standards (CPS) is highly critical of Labour’s four-day week proposal as it estimates a potential bill of £17bn for the public sector alone to meet the costs of operating a shorter week.

The 32-hour week was proposed at Labour’s party conference in a bid to improve public sector productivity over the next decade, with no loss of pay.

Alan Price, CEO and HR expert at BrightHR, said: ‘Although the idea of a four-day working week continues to gain popularity, employers remain under no legal requirement to introduce such a policy.

‘The closest the law currently gets is the option for flexible working, which any UK-based employee can request after working for the same employer for 26 weeks, although it is down to the employer to accept or reject this. Despite this, the idea of offering shorter working weeks has experienced continued popularity in recent years.

‘Employees are increasingly looking for roles that provide an opportunity for a stronger work/life balance by moving away from traditional working hours. Arguably, allowing employees to take more time away from work through a shorter week can assist them in outside commitments, such as childcare, and therefore help encourage their continued loyalty and commitment to the company.

‘Employers should remember that a motivated workforce could be crucial to the ongoing success of a company, helping to facilitate increased retention levels, heightened productivity and a strong sector reputation. Recently, New Zealand-based company Perpetual Guardian trailed a four-day week and found that productivity levels remained consistent.’

IT giant Microsoft has also looked at a four-day week scenario and ran a one-month trial in Japan in August called Work Life Choice Challenge, which saw offices close every Friday. By shutting down earlier each week the company was able to save on resources and electricity bills while offering staff more flexibility. It also claimed that productivity rose by 40%. The company is currently reviewing the outcome of the trial.

However, CPS argues there is extremely limited evidence that compressing hours raises productivity, or that public sector productivity will rise fast enough to cover the costs. The four-day week would require significant tax rises or spending cuts, or see productivity gains go towards cutting hours rather than improving public sector performance.

France introduced a similar trial 32-hour working week policy as part of labour law reform in 2000 to increase employment, but this was short-lived.

Jethro Elsden, data analyst at the CPS, said: 'This proposal puts the cart before the horse. We need to raise productivity before we can afford to shorten the working week, not vice versa - and public sector productivity growth over the last couple of decades has been almost static.

'There appears to be no evidence showing such a cut in hours could be cost-neutral. So either other spending would have to be cut, or taxes would have to rise, with a hefty cost of between 4p and 10p in the pound on the basic rate of income tax, and the evidence pointing to the higher end of that range.'

Balancing workload

There are undoubtedly benefits of moving to a four-day week from a staff perspecitive, giving employees a better work life balance and more work flexibility, but a compulsory four-day week, if legislated, would be a significant cultural shift for many organisations.

But employers need to consider a number of issues, particularly the impact on productivity.

‘It might not all be plain sailing. After all, the work still needs to be done, and businesses should consider if they will always be able to meet demand in this situation,’ Price explained.

‘Having to squeeze five days’ worth of work into four could result in higher levels of stress and job dissatisfaction, especially if hours worked during one day are increased to make up for it.

‘A shorter working week could end up having the opposite effect of the original intentions and make staff less productive. Longer days could make it more challenging to facilitate childcare and keep parents away from their kids for longer in the evenings.

‘Ultimately, employers will always put the needs and requirements of a business first, but they should bear in mind that a de-motivated workforce might be just as damaging as poorly thought through shift pattern.

‘If this is an area a company wishes to explore, it may be advisable to trial the new hours first and evaluate how they work in practice.’

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