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Should my business switch to a four-day week?

Spend less time at work and get more work done. A crazy contradiction? Or the way things should be for UK workers?

Public focus on the idea of a four-day week has ramped up, with news in January that a six-month pilot programme is set to begin in the UK this summer. The idea is to challenge the received wisdom that longer working hours equate to quality, when sometimes the opposite is true.  The governments of Ireland, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are trialling similar schemes.  The quid pro quo for workers receiving 100 per cent of the pay for 80 per cent of the time, is a commitment to maintain at least 100 per cent productivity.

The 4 Day Week UK Campaign has invited around 30 companies to participate in a shorter working week, and it will be interesting to see how they get on. In particular, will the claimed benefits transpire?

The research carried out by Cambridge and Oxford Universities suggests that a four-day week could  lead to a range of positive outcomes for workers and their employers. People get more time to themselves, so their work/life balance and overall happiness improve. Productivity stands to increase. Sickness absence should decrease. And employers could find that it’s easier to attract and retain talent in their businesses.

But just how easy is it to implement a four-day week?

It will certainly be more straightforward in some businesses than others. While a small business in the hospitality sector may find that it’s relatively simple to close on a Monday, for example, that won’t be the case for all. It will force some to think about shifting their operating model to a rota-style, where workers share different portions of the working week between them. From an organisational perspective, that will take some doing – particularly if shifts are to change from week to week. It will take careful ongoing management, too, to ensure a smooth transition from worker to worker. Also to ensure the role is manageable in four days, and that everyone applies the right amount of effort. Employers will also need to manage  contractual changes very carefully and in accordance with the law.

Working hours (and the obligation to provide work) are fundamental terms of a worker’s contract.  He or she may be contracted to work from nine to five, Monday to Friday, and expect (and be expected) to work those hours, week on week. Flexibility is often built into contracts to allow the parties some movement when it comes to when work should be undertaken, but contracts will invariably require amendment to cater for the removal of an entire working day, and also cater for working the full complement of hours over that period.

Employers should also manage contractual variation carefully. Employers who impose variation without agreement, risk claims for breach of contract. So, the safest course is to try and agree things with staff. Employers should consult with staff wherever possible with a view to reaching agreement. Ultimately, it’s about working together to try to achieve the best outcome. That’s not only a good basis for legal compliance; it also demonstrates that you value your people. This, in turn, can lead to better engagement in what you’re trying to achieve, and longer-term employee commitment to your business.

Of course, where a proposed contractual change is favourable to the employee – such as fewer working days for the same pay – that consultation ought to be plain sailing. Employees are likely to be on board with it. However, it’s still important to consult. It’s also important not to assume that all employees will be happy to disrupt their usual pattern of work. Some people will prefer to maintain their established working week. Others may be unwilling to make their fourth day a Saturday or Sunday perhaps, if working in a seven day a week business. It is important to be mindful of discrimination issues in this context. Others might object to colleagues being given more favourable terms than others, such as a preferable day off. This could lead to direct discrimination claims.

Where there is opposition to change, you’ll need to work closely with employees to see if there’s a way around the sticking points. Take account of workers’ individual situations. A condensed working week may not suit everyone if the requirement is to condense 100 per cent productivity into the shorter working week, for example those with childcare responsibilities. It could also increase pressures on some employees in other ways, including an increase in work related stress, perversely something that the scheme is designed to avoid. It’s important to be aware of the requirements of different roles, and also the characteristics of the people carrying them out, including any health conditions and disabilities that preclude longer working days.

As momentum around more flexible ways of working continues to build, the four-day week could well be the next ‘great change’ in workplaces all over the world. The question is: can your business afford not to give it serious consideration?

To find out more about implementing a four-day week, flexible working or any other workplace changes, get in touch with Meredith Hurst or another member of our Employment team on 020 7377 2829.