Might a four-day week be the future after all?

By Imogen Shaw

This week, Atom Bank made headlines with an announcement that it has introduced a four-day working week, without loss of pay – making it the largest company to do so to date. The trial version of this new way of working has been operating at the bank since 1 November and will continue into the New Year.

Atom have been clear on two counts – that this measure is optional, and staff members are free to opt out and continue to work a five-day week if that is their preference. The company has said the move aims to “challenge traditional and antiquated working practices”, and they believe that it will have significant benefits for their personnel, business, and ultimately for their customers.

Academic research has often borne this out – in July, it was widely reported that four-day working week trials in Iceland, which had taken place between 2014-2019, had been judged an “overwhelming success”.

The trials were run by Reykjavík City Council, in collaboration with central government and eventually included more than 2,500 workers to about  – approximately 1% of Iceland’s working population – and included workplaces ranging from offices, to children’s nurseries and hospitals. Workers reported feeling “less stressed and at risk of burnout” and noted improvements to their health and work-life balance.

Other such studies continue, including a pilot of a four-day working week for companies in Spain, which was instigated in part due to the challenges to traditional ways of working presented by coronavirus. Earlier this year, consumer goods giant Unilever also gave its New Zealand staff the opportunity to reduce their hours by 20%, without hurting their pay in a trial. In May, a report commissioned by campaign group Platform London found that shifting to a four-day working week without loss of pay could cut the UK’s carbon footprint by 127 million tonnes per year by 2025.

While discussions about the merits of a four-day week have been running for a while, there appears to have been a marked shift in public and business attitudes to the prospect over the last 24 months, as organisations and workers have had to contend with massive, enforced changes to their working patterns due to coronavirus lockdowns.

It is likely that Atom Bank will be followed by further businesses in trialling a four-day week, alongside other options for more flexible working. Time will tell if this leads to a more permanent sea change in working patterns, in the UK or elsewhere. It’s clear there is a growing corporate interest in ‘modernising’ the workplace, but there remain challenges to breaking away from established norms in offices where, if not for Coronavirus, all or most workers would still be expected to be present in the office Monday to Friday. Indeed, some businesses have already returned to a mandatory five-days a week in the office.

There is also the growing risk that the four-day week, much like at-home versus in-office working, becomes something of a culture war issue – an almost certain recipe for policy stagnation. The idea of a shorter working week has had a significantly warmer reception in recent months than when it was mooted by a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party ahead of the 2019 General Election. Nevertheless, the issue of who is working from the office, and when, and for how long, has become prominently covered (and hotly contested) in the media. It is in this landscape that companies will judge how to use what they have learned from the periods of lockdown to improve their offer to their staff – and to their customers.

Of course, all of this is to neglect the most significant issue presented by a move to a shorter or more flexible working week: it is not something that will be offered to the majority of lower-paid workers.

This week, the Resolution Foundation published Begin again?, a report assessing the permanent implications of Covid-19 for the UK Labour market. It found that while full-time homeworking looks set to end for most, hybrid and flexible working models are expected to become a more permanent fixture, particularly for highly-paid workers. However, it cautions that “too many people are focused on the lifestyle changes for professionals; the longer-lasting impact of homeworking will be disruption for lower earners, who need to find new jobs in new places as demand shifts”.

This is a significant issue of inequality to be considered at a political level, but it is also something that may prove contentious within private companies – especially organisations that employ large numbers of staff working in very different roles on separate sites, such as offices and warehouses. Businesses will need to make sure that they are not leaving one section of their workforce behind, as they explore new ways of working, or risk fostering discontent.