A four-day future? Calls grow for reduced working week as more companies trial concept

Advocates say longer weekends mean healthier staff and more productive businesses – so could the UK be on the cusp of a workplace revolution? Colin Drury heads to Wigan to find out

Sunday 28 November 2021 09:37 GMT
<p>‘People want interesting work, but they also want to adjust the balance between home and work. This does that’ </p>

‘People want interesting work, but they also want to adjust the balance between home and work. This does that’

It is an unlikely location for a workplace revolution: a cardboard-box factory in the middle of a nondescript industrial estate on the outskirts of Wigan.

Yet here, at Belmont Packaging in Hindley Green, they may just be pioneering what many believe could be the future: the four-day week.

For the past two years, factory floor staff here have downed tools at 5pm on a Thursday and enjoyed a three-day weekend. “Love it,” says die cutter Paul Roberts today. “It’s like a bank holiday every week.”

A pause. Not exactly like one, the 53-year-old corrects himself – “because the wife has me doing chores every Friday”.

The concept of a four-day week has hit the headlines after Atom bank became one of the UK’s biggest companies to begin trialling the idea.

The Durham-based company’s 340 staff will now work 34 hours instead of 37.5, and will get the choice of having Mondays or Fridays off – all without a reduction in pay. “We wanted a different offer for our employees and potential employees,” says boss Mark Mullen. “There’s competition for talent, and what people want is money, obviously – they want interesting work, but they also want to adjust the balance between home and work. This does that.”

Yet while Atom’s experiment caused a major stir – perhaps because it was one of the first financial companies to try the idea – it is, in fact, only the latest in a whole raft of organisations to experiment with the four-day week.

Internationally, a major four-year trial in Iceland – involving government staff, council workers and some primary-school teachers – was deemed an “overwhelming success”, while consumer giant Unilever is currently using the system in New Zealand with a view to rolling it out to its 150,000 staff across the planet.

In the UK itself, some 5 per cent of small and medium businesses are now estimated to offer some variant of a four-day week, according to analysis by the think tank Autonomy (itself a four-day company). They stretch from Hove to Aberdeen, from the west of Wales to East Anglia, and include everything from marketing companies and supermarkets – Morrisons’ head office staff work four days – to, well, cardboard-box manufacturers.

Which brings us nicely back to Belmont’s factory here in Wigan.

How does operator Paul Hill, 33, like his long weekend? “Wouldn’t change it for the world,” the father of three says. “There’s lads [from the industrial estate] asking me how they can get a job here. You get the wagon drivers coming in telling us how lucky we are.”

Kate Hulley, the owner of Belmont Packaging, says productivity soared after the four-day week was introduced

Owner Kate Hulley first tried the idea for the company’s 22 factory staff in the summer of 2019 after reading up about the potential benefits.

“As an idea, it just caught my eye,” the 42-year-old says. “The benefits for workers – in terms of mental health, wellbeing, spending time with family – felt like something a good business should be providing, so I started looking at how we could apply it here.”

The results? Not only was the change popular with workers but, she says, productivity soared: the company currently knocks out roughly half a million cardboard boxes every month – the most in its 43-year history – and, since 2018, has doubled its annual turnover to £6m.

“Running a business is a two-way street,” says Hulley, who bought the enterprise from her father in 2013. “We look after our staff and they look after us. We’re a community here. The staff have a huge impact on how we perform, so surely to goodness they should be recognised as our greatest asset. Surely we shouldn’t be flogging them to death.”

We look after our staff and they look after us. We’re a community here. We shouldn’t be flogging the staff to death

Kate Hulley, owner of Belmont Packaging

Such was the success of the shorter working week that last month they extended the rollout to the 10 office staff, too. “It was more logistically difficult because we have customers who might want to contact us on a Friday,” says Hulley. “But the key was communication: telling them what we were doing in advance.”

What was their reaction like? “Really supportive,” she says. “A few were saying they might consider doing something similar.”

It’s no picnic here, it should be said.

The staff do 38 hours across those four days. They effectively make up for their day off by putting in longer shifts. Yet this is just one version of the four-day week.

Some companies simply cull Friday without asking workers to make up any of the lost time; most – like Atom – make the working days slightly longer, but still end up with an overall drop in hours for staff.

Whatever the format, the guiding principle remains the same: that a three-day weekend improves mental and physical health, reduces the likelihood of burnout, and decreases both employee turnover and sick days. All of which, ultimately, helps a company become more productive and profitable. And – because of the reduction in energy use – greener, too.

“Doing this is a win-win for employer and employee,” says Joe Ryle, campaign director with the 4 Day Week Campaign. “Time and again we see companies thriving after making this change. Very rarely do they go back.”

Could this really be the future for all of us, though? He sees no reason why not.

“It’s only collective inertia that is stopping it,” he says. “Sometimes, when something has been done in a certain way for so long, people believe that’s the only way of doing it. But if we didn’t challenge these dogmas, we would never have progressed from the six-day working week a century ago. Now, we need to be coming up with a way of working that fits the current age.”

Die cutter Paul Roberts: ‘It’s like a bank holiday every week’

Not everyone agrees, it should be said.

Some bosses fear that, while production would remain consistent in the short term, it would eventually drop off, resulting, ultimately, in a smaller economy and a poorer country. Others, at the opposite end of the scale, suggest that a four-day week that involved workers being (explicitly or otherwise) expected to make up the time would only lead to greater staff stress and anxiety.

“In principle it’s a great idea,” says Abigail Marks, professor of the future of work at Newcastle University. “But we have such a complex labour market today – such a variety of occupational groups and contractual statuses – that something like this would be really complicated to implement, and really complex to hold businesses accountable.”

Her fear, she says, is that it would exacerbate existing inequalities: well-off white-collar workers would be far more likely to benefit than, for example, hospitality employees, shop staff, or those on zero-hour contracts.

“What we need to do,” says Marks, “is make what we have right now work better for everyone.”

How so?

By breaks and lunch hours being properly honoured and taken; by a new law enshrining a presumption in favour of flexible hours for all; and by a right to disconnect. “If we’re serious about stopping anxiety and exhaustion,” she says, “we first need to stop expecting people to be answering emails at weekends and in the evenings.”

She also advocates a universal basic income, although that, perhaps, is a whole different can of worms.

Either way, back with Paul Hill at Belmont, he’s already looking forward to this weekend. He and his partner are going Christmas shopping on Friday.

“Be great,” he says. “Won’t have the kids and means we beat the weekend crowds. Stuff like that, it just makes life better.”

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