Business

3,500 workers at 70 firms to trial 4 day work week — here's how it will work

Business Insider US
Academics from Cambridge University (pictured), Oxford University and Boston College will monitor the pilot.
Allan Baxter / Via Getty
  • A UK pilot to trial a 4-day working week will start in June. Campaigners hope 30 firms will enrol. 
  • Academics from Oxford, Cambridge, and Boston College will collect data and monitor those involved.
  • They hope to present a test case to governments and business leaders that a 4-day week is possible. 
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

The UK is about to be the center of a global experiment. On 6 June, it will host one of the largest experiments to reduce the length of the working week, with 3,500 workers at 70 firms due to switch to a four day week. 

The six-month pilot is being run by the nonprofit, 4 Day Week Global, in conjunction with think tank Autonomy, campaign group 4 Day Week UK, alongside academics from Oxford and Cambridge universities, as well as Boston college. 

The concept of a four-day working week is not new but it has gained traction over recent years in response to rising levels of burnout, and record quit rates. There are many ways to do so, but campaigners say that reducing the standard, 40-hour work week not only makes workers happier but can improve social inequality and can help the environment. 

It seems others agree. Joe Ryle, campaign director for the 4 Day Week UK, told Insider that his phone was ringing every 15 minutes in the days following the launch of the trial in March. Since then 70 companies, across financial services, brewing and automotive manufacturing have signed up. Collectively they employ 3,500 staff. 

Academics will collect data on how workers respond to a four day week

From June 6th, the firms will adopt a 80-100-100 model of working: an 80% drop in hours, while retaining 100% pay and 100% of a worker's productivity. How each firm does that is down to them.  

Researchers from Oxford University, Cambridge University, and Boston College will then collect data from the trials, interview companies involved, and come up with ways to measure how successful they've been. 

Academics from Oxford University, Cambridge University and Boston College with conduct interviews with workers involved and look at data to assess how successful it's been. 

"We'll be analysing how employees respond to having an extra day off, in terms of stress and burnout, job and life satisfaction, health, sleep, energy use, travel and many other aspects of life," said Juliet Schor, Professor of Sociology at Boston College and lead researcher on the pilot. 

Participating companies have been whittled down from a shortlist of hundreds to ensure a range of industries and types of firms are covered. 

Some of the first firms to sign up were the training company MLB Seminars, communications firm Yo Telecom and video game designer Hutch Games. Pressure Drop Brewing, The Royal Society of Biology and restaurant Platten's Fish and Chips Are other employers that are taking part. 

When the pilot officially ends, the campaigners plan to compile a report, which they can then present — alongside data from pilots undertaken in Ireland in February and the USA and Canada in April 2022 — as a test case to governments and business leaders. They hope the findings will demonstrate that it's possible to reduce hours without losing productivity

The trial hopes to change perceptions among workers

"The pilot is going to be useful for shifting the question about how we make it work," David Frayne, research associate at University Of Cambridge's Digital Futures at Work Research Centre, and one of the social scientists involved in the UK study, told Insider.

One of the biggest challenges Frayne has identified is changing the public's perception of what a four-day week actually entails. 

While many dream of a long, three-day weekend, the concept is only going to work at all levels of the labor market if it can be tailored to individual businesses and sectors, Frayne said. A one-size-fits-all approach won't work.

During a trial of a six-hour working day for care workers in Gothenburg, Sweden, extra staff were hired to accommodate the switch. In contrast, during well-documented trials in Iceland involving 2,500 people, some childcare workers shortened their day by leaving when the children went home, instead of staying later.

In total, across the whole trial, which included government call center workers and child protection staff, the average worker cut between two and five hours from their working week and experienced improvements in wellbeing.

Campaigners argue that a reduction in working hours can typically be achieved by cutting down meetings and using technology to improve workloads

Morgan Rigby, chairman of MBL Seminars, said that the switch would provide them with the opportunity to transform their business through innovation. It would also help the company to prioritize the wellbeing of its 70 employees, he said. 

Ryle is very clear about what it doesn't mean: "Compressing hours from five days into four doesn't solve the problems of workplace burnout, stress, overwork, or mental health issues," Ryle said. It also shouldn't come with a reduction in pay. 

Anyone hoping for a sudden change shouldn't get too excited

While the idea of a four-day work week may be popular with workers, it's only slowly gaining traction in political circles. 

Governments in Spain and Scotland have gone the furthest by pledging millions to fund as yet unspecified trials. Senate members within the devolved parliament in Wales in the UK are also actively debating the concept.

Many of those involved in the UK pilot have backgrounds in politics. Ryle himself was previously communications manager for the Labour party's former shadow finance minister, John McDonnell. However, they say 4 Day Week Global's pilot is independent and politicians aren't directly involved.

In the US, the California Democrat Mark Takano has been one of the most high-profile political advocates. His legislation seeks to reduce the threshold at which workers qualify for overtime pay, from 40 to 32 hours. 

In May, a separate proposal that sought to require private-sector firms with over 500 employees in California to pay workers hourly overtime after they notch up 32 hours was shelved after The State Assembly's Labor and Employment Committee declined to progress it for a policy hearing, per the Wall Street Journal

However, despite burgeoning support for the initiative, given current labor shortages, it remains a goal that is out of reach for many. 

With many still not convinced that a four-day week can be implemented on a broad scale, campaigners say it's important that there are pilots that can provide clear and actionable data to counter reluctance and resistance to the concept.

Ryle points to how changes in working patterns during the pandemic demonstrate that the world of work can change quickly when we want it to.

"We're very clear that this is a policy that has to benefit everyone," Ryle said. "And of course, that's not gonna happen overnight. There's gonna be a transition to get there."

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