As one New Zealand firm, employing 240 people, commits to a four-day working week this month (Nov 2018), there is increasing debate over whether UK business should follow.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) said it should be an ambition for UK business by the end of this century, when publishing a report stating that UK workers currently put in some of the longest hours in Europe and rack up £32 billion worth of unpaid overtime.

In fact, a number of UK firms have already shifted to the four-day week.

But a spokesman for business organisation the CBI said: “At a time when flexible working is becoming more essential than ever, rigid approaches feel like a step in the wrong direction.”

Indeed, 87 per cent of HR professionals questioned in exclusive research for HR specialist AdviserPlus believed flexible working could reduce unauthorised absenteeism.

Flexibility is key

Mark Hooper, who founded IndyCube in Wales (a new concept union for the self-employed working in conjunction with Community Union), said the four-day working week and overall flexible working need not be mutually exclusive.

IndyCube moved to a 30-hour week in February last year in a period of structural changes and expansion. The existing staff got a pay rise at the same time.

As well as working reduced hours, the seven-strong IndyCube team work on a flat pay scale, all earning well above the average UK salary.

Mark said: “If anything, I think we are more productive in four days, though I don’t have evidence to prove that.

“We have a more committed, happy group of people working together rather than people spending Sunday evening thinking ‘I don’t want to go to work again’.

“More than anything I think we are more human generally. I feel we are saying life isn’t all about work.

“We may feign flexibility in the workplace in the UK but in reality we are working longer hours than anywhere else in Europe and are also less productive. At IndyCube we’re trying to do something differently to see if it works better.

“The TUC has said we should aim for this by the end of the century but the future of work is here and now.”

Mark admits, though, that he himself struggles to stick to a five day week let alone four, but is quick to point out that is due to being passionate about what he does not due to picking up slack of colleagues.

IndyCube implements the four-day week approach flexibly. One staff member, for example, works reduced hours across the week to allow him to do the school run.

Employee Jo Hinchliffe, 42, said:  “When my stepfather died, knowing I only had to be in work four days a week made a huge difference.

“There was no booking of carers leave, no forms, no conflict, just me calmly moving my diary around.”

Costs of four-day week outweighed benefits in Swedish experiment

A two-year experiment, funded by the Swedish government, which saw nurses at a retirement home allowed to work six-hour days for eight-hour pay, was eventually abandoned after it was decided costs outweighed benefits, the Independent reported last year.

The report said: “During the two-year experiment, employees reported feeling happier and healthier, thereby reducing the number of sick leaves they took by 10 per cent.

“Meanwhile, there were also improvements in patients care as workers started to spend more of their reduced working hours on “social activity” with their patients.

“Despite shorter work days, happier and more productive staff, preliminary results concluded that it also cost the home around 12m kronor (over £1m), because they had to hire in 17 extra staff for the duration of the project.”

Perpetual Guardian and others not put off

From November 1, the four-day week is a reality for employees of Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand trust business, employing 240 people, following an eight-week trial earlier this year.

The trial was prompted after the firm’s founder and CEO Andrew Barnes saw research that suggested productivity in the workforce can be as low as 1.5 hours a day.

He said: “Some of the changes are just age-old time management practices.”

Reported positives were job performance was maintained in four days, lowered stress levels and significant improvements in work/life balance.

On the downside, an outcome report, said managers found it difficult to reduce working hours, some teams were unable to participate due to workload and others found they were working ‘compressed hours’ – longer hours during the four days to offset the extra day off.

Employees who opt in to the four-day week will be eligible for a weekly ‘rest day’, provided they meet their weekly productivity objectives, and will be paid at their usual salary. They will continue to accrue annual leave, with entitlements remaining on the basis of their contractual hours as set out in their individual employment agreements.

Employees who do not opt in may still negotiate flexibility in their hours across the five-day
week (such as starting and finishing earlier to miss rush hour or accommodate school pick-ups).

The company is working on innovative solutions and new processes to address the
four-day week for existing part-time staff and where teams have seasonal peaks of work
during the year.

UK-based hotel group uses four-day week to attract staff

Independent country house hotel group, Hand Picked Hotels, has launched a four-day working week for chefs, designed to support a greater work-life balance for kitchen teams and attract more skilled professionals to the industry.

The new four days on / three days off initiative is being trialled at the group’s Ettington Park Hotel in Stratford-Upon-Avon as part of a wider series of recruitment and retention programmes driven by new Director of Food and Beverage, Graeme Nesbitt.

Graeme said: “The hotel and hospitality industry has long been vocal about the growing shortage of skilled, trained chefs and the gap is widening – it is still very much a case of supply outstripping demand and as an industry we have to work harder to turn heads.”

The four-day week is no silver bullet

Rachel Suff, wellbeing adviser for the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development, said: “Moving to a four-day week isn’t going to be a silver bullet for improving workplace practices and employee well-being. We have to tackle what’s driving long hours working and people working out of hours to really change the situation.

“Employers and managers need to have management practices that encourage genuine two-way flexibility and make sure workloads and deadlines are manageable. Employers must also ensure that technology and working practices are used to encourage agile working to ensure people have control over their work life balance and are not faced with unrealistic demands. This will help to reduce the risk of long hours working, stress and help to ensure people are able to switch off outside the office. Employees are more likely to be engaged and productive if this is the case.

“Merely regulating on the issue won’t necessarily solve the problem because if UK organisations don’t tackle the underlying causes of long hours working and low productivity – such as poor management practices, poor job design and lack of attention to people’s health and well-being – these problems would still persist in a four-day week.”