The idea of a four-day workweek is gaining traction worldwide, with several countries, including Germany, Denmark, and Belgium, exploring its potential benefits. The buzz around a four-day workweek got a resurgence during the COVID-19 pandemic. Workers and employers took a fresh look at the value of flexibility and job perks. In simple terms, the proposal is this: employees work four days a week, maintaining their regular pay and benefits, all while handling the same amount of work.
For companies embracing this shift, it translates to fewer meetings and a greater emphasis on independent work. The goal is to create a workweek that’s not only streamlined but also tailored to individual preferences and needs. This shift is seen to enhance employee satisfaction and well-being. Countries like Germany, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Scotland, and Wales are exploring the concept of employees working fewer days while still getting paid the same.
Germany’s test run
In September 21, 2023, companies in Germany embarked on a novel experiment, introducing a pilot project for a four-day workweek. Compared to other countries, it’s having one of the longest trials, lasting till December 2024. The initiative, prompted by calls from trade unions, aims to assess the impact of condensing the workweek without reducing compensation.
The essence of the idea is to reevaluate the structure of the workweek, allowing employees to enjoy a three-day weekend while maintaining their existing salary and benefits.
Though still in its early trials, the pilot project is expected to usher in a change in work dynamics, emphasizing fewer meetings and greater focus on independent work.
Learning from the UK
The United Kingdom has been at the forefront of testing the feasibility of a four-day work week. Launched in June 2022, the trial aimed to understand the effects of reduced working hours on both business productivity and the well-being of employees. The outcomes were overwhelmingly positive, with participating companies reporting improvements in productivity, overall morale, and team culture. After implementing the programme, 92% of employers said they would maintain a reduced workweek, with 30% making the adjustment permanent.
Encouraged by these results, many UK companies are now considering making the four-day workweek a permanent fixture.
In this trial, companies and over 3,300 employees collaborated with researchers from esteemed institutions such as Cambridge and Oxford Universities, Boston College, and advocacy groups like 4 Day Week Global. The success of this trial has led to the expansion of similar programs in the US and Ireland, with plans for more in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
Belgium leads the way
Belgium has emerged as a pioneer in the move towards a four-day workweek by enacting legislation to support it. In February 2022, Belgian employees gained the right to choose a four-day workweek without any reduction in pay. Unlike the UK and Germany, which are still in the testing phase, Belgium enacted it as law, effective November 21 of the same year. It provides employees the flexibility to decide whether they prefer a traditional five-day workweek or the condensed four-day option. The overarching goal is to grant individuals and companies more freedom in arranging work schedules, fostering a more adaptable labour market. Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo hopes this change will make the country’s job market more flexible, making it easier for individuals to balance their professional and family lives.
Scotland joins in
The momentum towards a four-day workweek is wider than continental Europe. Scotland is actively considering and implementing trials in their respective regions. In Scotland, a government trial for civil servants is scheduled to commence later this year. The decision to conduct this trial fulfils a campaign promise by the Scottish National Party (SNP), with First Minister Humza Yousaf announcing the public sector trial in September. The Welsh government, too, is contemplating its own trial following positive responses from the public.
Moreover, a poll conducted by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) in Scotland showed that 80% of respondents were highly positive about the idea of a four-day workweek. Respondents believed that such a program would significantly improve their health and happiness. Scotland also drew inspiration from Iceland, where the implementation of a four-day workweek yielded positive results. Some Scottish businesses have already initiated their own truncated workweeks, further endorsing the potential benefits.
Is this the future of work?
While the shift towards a four-day work week appears promising, it may not be universally applicable to all industries. Certain sectors, such as manufacturing, cleaning, and retail, are closely tied to productivity and may find it challenging to maintain the same level of output with reduced work hours. Companies in these sectors may be less willing to adopt a four-day workweek without accompanying reductions in pay. Moreover, many employees in these and other low-income sectors may find it financially challenging to cope with a pay cut.
Unless a four-day workweek with no pay reduction becomes mandatory by law or is established through collective agreements, it is likely that primarily those working in high-income sectors will have the opportunity to work fewer hours without a reduction in pay. However, it has the potential to worsen existing imbalances in the workforce, creating a divide between those who work less for more and have better mental health and those who work more for less and have more stress and unhappiness.
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