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30 British companies will work 4 days a week this summer—and then try to make it the law

Before the pandemic, companies reimagining the 5-day week were often viewed as eccentric. But as our relationship with work, productivity, and the office have shifted, they may soon have a competitive edge.

30 British companies will work 4 days a week this summer—and then try to make it the law
[Source Image: Slim3D/Getty Images]

British company MBL Seminars provides professional development courses for lawyers and accountants. Its chairman, Morgan Rigby, who now runs the Manchester-based company remotely from the U.S., is part of a CEO club on the North Shore of Massachusetts where business leaders gather to share ideas. Years ago, Rigby shared a paper arguing for a 4-day workweek. “They all thought I was insane,” he says. He tried to explain the concept: You pay employees for a 5-day week, and they achieve the productivity of 5 days, but work for 4. If that’s the case, they countered, why not pay them for 5 and get 6 days of productivity?

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Rigby was coming up against old-fashioned mindsets that hadn’t considered the arbitrariness of our 5-day, 9-to-5 structure—a concept invented only 100 years ago yet can now sometimes seem as if it’s a law of nature. But the surge of remote work during the pandemic showed that we have the capacity to upend traditional structures very quickly if we want to—signaling the possibility of trimming the entire workweek, which advocates say could improve well-being, productivity, and recruitment. This summer, businesses across the U.K. will pilot a 4-day workweek to show the potential for success, which, if it works, could help push Parliament to adopt a 32-hour workweek nationally, across the economy.

Bringing the idea into the public consciousness is 4 Day Week Global Foundation, a nonprofit championing the idea of the 4-day week across the world. In the U.K., instead of waiting “for Conservatives to wake up to the new reality of a new way of working that people want,” says Joe Ryle, director of the group’s U.K. campaign, the pilot program provides a “bottom-up approach,” which starts with businesses adopting the structure for six months.

Collaborating with partners, including Oxford and Cambridge universities, and the think tank Autonomy, an estimated 50 companies will begin the pilot June 1, with almost 10 companies now signed on. Already, a similar pilot started this month in Ireland, and the North American pilot of 35 companies will follow on April 1, including crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, motorhome company Advanced RV, and Italian restaurant group M’tucci’s.

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Hutch is a London-based video game company that develops Formula One racing games, and was recently acquired for $375 million. Like Rigby, its CEO Shaun Rutland, thought about the 4-day workweek before hearing about the official program. A decade ago, he’d been ahead of his industry in creating a hybrid work model, comprising 3 days at the office for collaborating, and 2 at home for “deeper tasks.” He admits having been shy about publicizing the concept, so much so that he hid it from investors. One called him a “business hippie” for the practice.

[Source Image: Slim3D/Getty Images]

A win-win: Better well-being and more productivity

Then came the pandemic. Companies were forced to trust their employees to work from home, and many learned that it wasn’t the disaster they were expecting. With that experience in mind, the 4-day workweek is fast picking up momentum because workers have enjoyed a taste of more freedom with remote work, Ryle says—like a “gateway drug” to overhauling outdated norms. He adds the organization also believes now is the moment for change because it’s almost exactly 100 years since “we won the weekend.”

In America, it was Henry Ford who, in 1926, de facto created the 5-day, 40-hour workweek, later adopted by the government in 1940. In the U.K., the figure of change was John Boot, of the Boots pharmacy chain. In 1933, he remedied the imbalance of a concerning number of layoffs by allowing Saturday and Sunday off; Boots later reported reduced absenteeism and increased productivity as a result of the policy. But despite technological advances that have dramatically increased an individual worker’s efficiency over the last century, little has changed.

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For both Rigby and Rutland, the chance to improve employee well-being was one of the key draws in joining the pilot, especially to reward their 72 and 135 employees, respectively, after the struggles of the pandemic. But the work-life imbalance goes back further, Ryle says, asserting that the British workplace “has been characterized by burnout, stress, [and] overwork.” And while U.K. working hours are higher than the European average, it may not be gaining much from the burnout: Britain has lower productivity than all of its neighboring countries.

So, the pilot also represents a chance to test whether the 4-day workweek raises productivity, as past examples have shown: When Microsoft Japan tested it, the company reported a 40% increase in output. Rigby wishes he’d made this pragmatic business case to his CEO club. “It’s as hard-nosed as it is soft,” he says.

Increased productivity in just 4 days seems counterintuitive and is the main source of employee concern for both companies. “I already work really hard—now you want me to do the same amount of work in less days?” Rutland says was a common reaction. But the idea is not to fit 5 days into 4. “This is about changing the way we work to be more productive,” Rigby says. For his business, in order to still produce 4,000 events and keep revenue at the same level every year, it’s about identifying time-wasters and stripping out processes: basically questioning everything they did before March 2020.

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Rigby’s company still needs to run events 5 days a week, so that will dictate when workers can take days off, but he hopes to offer flexibility, such as letting employees take off a Wednesday, if they prefer a mid-week break. At Hutch, all staff will take the same day off, so they can still collaborate; the key will be to encourage rest to return refreshed. For those itching to be active on an off-day, he suggests volunteering at a charity and giving back, rather than doing video game work.

[Source Image: Slim3D/Getty Images]

A chance to be part of history

Since the announcement, Ryle reports significant interest: 500 companies have attended information sessions, and the campaign is likely on-board with about 50, versus an initial goal of 30. “The demand in the U.K. has been really quite remarkable,” says Joe O’Connor, the global pilot program manager. While he says that’s probably symptomatic of more global momentum, there are signs that the U.K. may be further along in the conversation; in 2019, the Labour Party adopted the 4-day workweek as part of its official platform, and 2020 polling showed two-thirds of the public were interested. Rigby, who lives in the U.S., suggests: “I suspect that the U.K. or Europe is less skeptical than in the United States.”

Chosen companies will attend training and workshops March to May before the June start date, during which they’ll have mentorship and a network of all those around the world doing the pilot. Throughout the period, managers and employees will partake in surveys, and employers will share metrics like revenue and absenteeism, to help compile a global report next spring to hopefully show positive effects on productivity and well-being, but also on environment and gender equality.

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If successful, the campaign will present the report to Parliament, rallying members to support the 4-day workweek law. National adoption isn’t unprecedented: Spain and Scotland announced public pilots last year while Iceland’s was so successful that 85% of Icelanders now have the option to work 32-hour weeks.

The businesses aim to continue the practice past the pilots, though if it doesn’t work, they’re ready to quickly switch back. But in the meantime, both Rutland and Rigby want employees to make the most of the trial—not least of all because it could help effect historical national change. “You might be helping your mom and your dad, your uncle and your kids, your next-door neighbor, the person you sit next to on the bus,” Rigby says. “There’s another reason to give it your best shot.”

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