In mid-October 2022, Parliament has debated, for the first time, a proposal to implement a four-day working week in the UK. The bill, proposed by Labour, would reduce maximum working hours per week to 32 with no corresponding reduction in pay. Whilst it is unlikely that the bill will get very far (it is not supported by the government), it marks an interesting development in the case for a four-day working week, which is continuing to gain momentum.

In the UK, this increasing momentum is currently focused on a major six-month trial run by 4 Day Week Global involving over 3,000 employees across 70 organisations. The trial involves employees working 80% of their contractual hours for 100% pay with the expectation of achieving 100% productivity. Whilst the trial isn’t due to end until December 2022, the mid-term reported results are positive, with the majority of the companies which responded to the interim survey saying it worked for their businesses and 86% saying they planned to continue with a four-day working week after the trial.

 Why is a four-day working week becoming increasingly popular?

Aside from the obvious appeal of having an additional day off work with no reduction in pay and the associated work/life balance benefits, a number of material advantages for a four-day working week are often cited:

  • Employee retention – post lockdowns, employees’ priorities are shifting with many citing welfare and work life balance as being more important than financial incentives.
  • Improved workplace equality – providing those with childcare/carer/other responsibilities with an increased ability to manage those responsibilities around work thereby increasing equality.
  • Social impact – opportunity for employees to choose to spend their additional day undertaking volunteering and other social/charitable pursuits (with one survey from 2019 finding that 25% of employees used their additional day to undertake voluntary or other work).
  • Environmental and costs benefits – reduced carbon footprint and costs for both employers and employees with less frequent commuting (and for some, childcare) and (potentially) with not running an office for an additional day. 4 Day Week estimate that a parent with two children would save £3,232.40 on average per year or roughly £269.36 per month.

What are some of the practical and legal considerations?

  • Is it feasible/realistic? A four-day working week in the form being trialled isn’t likely to work for all sectors, all businesses, all roles or all employees. Is it realistic to expect five days’ worth of work to be completed within four days? Early indications of the UK trial suggest that it is in some cases. Of the companies participating in the UK trial which responded to an interim survey, 95% said that productivity had stayed the same or improved during the shorter week. However, this won’t be the case for all roles, particularly those that charge for services on a ‘time’ rather than ‘output’ basis or where productivity is outside of the employee’s control (e.g. some roles in retail). Even if it is feasible, consider whether the benefits of an additional day off will be outweighed by the potential increased stress of fitting the same workload within fewer hours. In some cases, there are efficiencies that could be made or rotas/allocations can be rearranged to make this work but there may be cost consequences. In some cases, this might not be workable at all.
  • Consent? Moving to a four-day working week will be a material change in terms for employees who work full time. Employee consent will therefore be required. Where employees are receiving 100% pay with an additional day off per week, provided there is a plan for managing workloads, obtaining consent is likely to be straightforward in most cases, but employers should also consider whether the change will be subject to a trial period and, if so, the circumstances in which the change may be revoked.
  • Impacts on other terms? A four-day working week clearly impacts an employees’ working hours and days but what about other terms? For example, will their annual holiday entitlement be prorated in line with working hours? 4-Day Week Global recommends pro-rating. Overtime and TOIL policies will also need to be updated.
  • Expectations on the non-working day? Clear communication is critical regarding any circumstances in which the employee may be expected to work on the non-working day and whether that triggers overtime/TOIL policies. Employers should also consider any limits on what an employee may do on the non-working day (e.g. can they perform other paid work?) and check exclusivity and conflict of interest clauses are fit for purpose.
  • Part time workers? If full-time workers move to four days a week with no reduction in pay, what happens to part-time workers already working four days or less? Part time workers have statutory protection against less favourable treatment on the basis of their part time status so the logical solution is to offer an equivalent change of pro-rated reduction in working hours for no loss of pay or current hours with a pro rata pay increase. In the former scenario, consideration will then need to be given as to whether the same productivity can be achieved in three days compared to four. Consideration also needs to be given to employees who work compressed hours. The scope for indirect discrimination on the basis that the majority of part-time workers are women means these issues needs to be handled particularly carefully.

Is imminent legal change likely on this area in the UK?

The short answer is no. Whilst Belgium has announced the introduction of a legal right for employees to request a four-day working week, no legal change is expected in the UK in this area. Labour’s recent bill proposing a reduction of the working week to 32 hours (and that hours in excess of 32 hours be remunerated at 1.5 times ordinary pay) are not supported by the government, with Conservative MP Sir Christopher Chope referring to the proposal as a “hand grenade being thrown into the economy”.

But, as demonstrated by recent political events, the position can change quickly and the situation may be different if we have a Labour government in years to come. Whilst a four-day working week formed part of the Labour party’s 2019 election manifesto, they haven’t (as yet) re-committed to that for a future election.

In the meantime, support for a four-day working week is certainly gaining momentum. With a competitive job market and the so-called “great resignation” post pandemic, as well as a challenging economic environment, employers in the UK are facing difficult decisions to attract and retain top talent in their businesses. Where increased financial incentives will not always be feasible (or even the top priority for all employees), employers are finding increasingly creative ways to adapt. For some businesses in some sectors, offering a four-day working week could provide that opportunity, but as explained above, there are a number of practical and legal challenges for such businesses to work through before doing so. The conclusions from the UK trial in December are likely to be closely scrutinised and used as a further basis for building momentum by supporters of the four-day working week.