From education to employment

80% work for 100% pay: what you need to know about the four-day working week

Charlotte Sloan

Three-quarters of UK recruiters say a four-day week will be the norm by 2030, according to research commissioned by NatWest on the future of work. 70% of the SME employers surveyed agreed that reducing the amount of time people were at work, without reducing their pay, was a good idea and recruiters predict that this is how the market is moving.  

The idea of working fewer hours for the same pay isn’t entirely new. Between 2015 and 2019, Iceland conducted trials that took place in schools, the police-force and government departments. Some aspects of this were to understand the impact working fewer hours had on employee productivity and wellbeing. Trials involved 1% of the population of the health sector. It’s important to recognise though, that these involved reducing hours (in some cases by only an hour or two each week) rather than a four-day working week.  

In June this year, the UK launched its own six month trial of the four-day working week which involved 70 organisations and is the largest ever trial of its type anywhere in the world. UK employers and workers engaging in the pilot have access to workshops, mentoring, networking, and wellbeing and productivity assessments to support and assess the impact of the trial. 

However, we’re already seeing an interest in exploring adopting a four-day working week for employers who aren’t involved in the trial – including some from the unlikely education sector. So, what’s the appeal for education employers?

The challenging job market 

Many employers are struggling to fill vacancies, and employers in the education sector are not an exception to this rule. 

Unemployment is at a record low and competition for talent at an all-time high. Employees whose skills are in demand are also becoming increasingly choosy about which offer to accept, with many opting to move out of education and into work for those organisations with larger budgets.

Further, we are in the middle of a cost of cost-of-living crisis, with employers across the education sector being asked to make significant pay increases to offset inflationary price increases. Education employers are experiencing a significant increase in the number of trade union disputes regarding pay, with the University and College Union (UCU) calling on its members to take part in 10 days of industrial action across September and October this year, and the National Education Union and NASUWT launching formal industrial action ballots. Adopting a four-day working week model will give staff a real terms pay increase (working fewer hours means that their hourly rates will increase), plus they will save money if they ordinarily travel to work.  This is one reason for a reported increase in popularity in the four- day week model in schools in the United States, particularly smaller rural schools. Closing colleges one day per week would also help mitigate against the impact of soaring energy bills.  

Post-pandemic, many employees want to work flexibly and it’s becoming common to see many roles advertised as hybrid. Education employers face obvious obstacles in this regard, as those in student-facing roles have less autonomy and flexibility than others, but it’s not just about being able to work from home; increasingly employees want employers to take active steps to support their health and wellbeing. Being creative with student timetabling and as a result reducing the amount of time education sector staff are required to work without reducing their pay is likely to score highly on most people’s wish list (what’s not to like from an employee perspective?) and make it easier for employers to attract and retain staff. 

Can the four-day week really work?

The Icelandic study found that shift workers benefitted slightly more than office workers during the trials, but all groups saw an improvement in their overall wellbeing. They found it easier to balance their work alongside their domestic responsibilities and had more time to spend on exercising, hobbies and seeing friends and family. But the big reveal was that productivity wasn’t impacted, regardless of the type of work involved and, the reason for this, according to the co-author of the report, is that people “unquestionably waste hours at work”. 

But there are drawbacks too:  

  1. Allowing staff to work shorter working hours without reducing their workloads, could increase the pressure and stress on employees that already work productively and efficiently and the UCU have already expressed their concerns in this regard. A particular challenge may be reducing the working time of part-time workers when the hours available to fulfil their role are already tight.
  2. You may have to manage a more complex array of working patterns, if you can’t simply shut down the entire college one day a week or employ other staff to cover this (which will increase your overheads). This happened in the Icelandic study where the government had to hire more healthcare workers to provide cover due to shorter working hours.
  3. What will you do if you can’t maintain the productivity you need to provide a good education service to students? 

Alternatives to the four-day working week

It’s clearly not going to be easy for all colleges to adopt a four-day working week. But there are other alternatives which should still improve employee wellbeing without having a negative impact on the service being delivered. 

For example, employers could:

  • implement a working pattern of nine out of ten days, or working half a day rather than a full day, one day each week; 
  • reduce all employees’ daily working hours – even if only by an hour or two; or 
  • introduce flexible working policies that move employees from their rigid working patterns and give them the freedom to get their job done at a time that works for both employer and employee.

Three tips to help you reduce working time without impacting performance

  1. Communicate with your staff

If you are going to trial reducing employees’ working hours, you’ll need to get your staff on-board and discuss with them how you envisage it working, what your expectations are, and how you will determine if the trial has been a success. Clear and honest communication is key. You’ll need to consider what model you want to trial and then ask staff for their feedback and suggestions about how to make it work. 

If you are not going to offer a shorter working week to all staff, you will also need to think about how it’s likely to go down with those who aren’t involved who will be working more hours than their colleagues on less pay. Will you pay them an additional allowance to compensate them or rotate the trial so that everyone experiences it, albeit at different times?

You may also need to review and make changes to your working practices. Talk to your staff as they may be able to identify easy time savings that you can implement quickly and easily. 

If you recognise a union for collective bargaining, you will need to consult with them to try and agree the changes you propose.

  1. Implement trial periods and get the contract right

There is no guarantee that the four-day working week will work for your organisation. You must reserve the right to require staff to revert to their usual working pattern after the trial so that if productivity significantly falls (or the trial fails on any other metrics you intend to use) you can do just that.

This requires a temporary change to your employee’s terms and conditions of employment. You don’t have to issue a new s1 statement or contract of employment, but you must explain in writing to each employee, how long the trial will last, how much the employee will be paid and any other relevant information. 

  1. Work out how to maintain or increase productivity 

There are a number of measures that can be put in place to increase employee productivity aside from the obvious measure of carefully timetabling lessons for lecturers including: 

  • encouraging employees to switch off e-mail or other notifications when working on a large task and setting aside certain times when they can be disturbed;
  • supporting employees to be more productive by identifying their individual working style. For example, the Pomodoro Technique encourages staff to deeply focus for 25 minutes and then take a five-minute break. But that won’t work for everyone. There is a very useful (and free) tool to help staff identify their ideal productivity model which you can access here;
  • having a ‘no meetings’ day once a week and more generally keeping meetings to a minimum;
  • ditching routine tasks that provide little benefit

By Senior Associate Charlotte Sloan, who is in the Employment Law team at Irwin Mitchell

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    First off, let’s clear up any misconceptions about this plan. It doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to spend less time at work—it simply means that you’ll be able to take a few days off each week instead of just one. These days can be spent doing whatever it is that makes you feel better about yourself or helps you recharge your batteries (and then some). Of course, if things start feeling too hectic or stressful after those three days off, then maybe it’s time for another break or change in career focus altogether… but only if necessary!
    There are also a lot of factors to consider to ensure productivity at work. The working environment is one of the top factors to consider. Making sure it isn’t noisy or dull will help a lot to get the focus and concentration that you need. And when working in an office where a lot of things are taking place all at the same time, it is pretty hard to achieve a peaceful working environment. But I’ve found out about these Soundproof working booths from a lot of companies, which they have been using whether for simple phone calls and solo or group meetings. And one trusted brand I saw is from Soundbox Store which has been installed in a lot of various known companies and brands from all over the world. This may help you or your employees too, so you might want to consider having one.