Is a 4 day working week just around the corner?
4 Day Working Week - CIPD
October 20, 2022
October 20, 2022

Marek Zemanik CIPD


By Marek Zemanik
, Senior Public Policy Adviser with the CIPD in Scotland and Northern Ireland

 

 

Many of us have re-evaluated our working lives over the last two and a half years. The pandemic has led to changes in where and how we work, with attitudes towards home/hybrid working changing dramatically. But more and more people are starting to think about when we work too – and this has led to an increased interest in the concept of a four day working week.

This month, the CIPD published a new Scottish report into this, looking at current working patterns, as well as employee and employer perspectives. Some of the Scottish headlines the report generated suggested the four day working week is just around the corner for many of us? But is it really?

How do Scots currently work and does it suit them?

A useful starting point is to explore current working patterns across Scotland. The truth is, just like with homeworking, we tend to view matters through a lens of our own experience of the world of work. And for those of us working in a traditional Monday-Friday 9-5 working pattern it is quite straightforward to imagine how a four day working week would work and perhaps even what the impact of that would be.

But this is not a universal working pattern across Scotland. Our analysis shows that on average Scots work 35.9 hours per week – just over a five day week if we assume a 7-hour day with an hour for lunch. Many, however, work significantly more than that. Over a fifth work more than 42 hours per week (a six day week) and more than one in ten work more than 49 hours per week (a seven day week). Over 30% of Scots work at the weekend and many will work variable hours week on week. Even without accounting for significant occupational/industry differences, implementing a four day working week across the board is a challenging prospect.

In addition to this, it is also crucial to recognise individual employee preferences. The majority of Scots (63%) are happy with the hours they work. Around 30% would like to work fewer hours, but only 12% would accept a pay cut for this. That leaves 18% of Scots who are looking for fewer hours without a reduction in pay.

However, even this can change due to economic circumstances – the worsening cost of living crisis is likely to push people into looking for more hours to boost their income. Indeed, even if productivity is boosted across Scottish companies (as it must) through investment in technology or better people management over time, it is unclear whether employees would prefer reduced hours over a pay rise.

Are employers ready to reduce hours?

Interestingly, our survey finds a level of disconnect between what Scottish employers feel might happen and what they are actually planning to do. While around a third told us that they expect the four day working week to become the norm in the next ten years, only 2% planned to reduce hours without reducing pay in the next three years. Similarly, even though 13% of Scottish employers said they reduced hours in the last five years, we know around half of them did so as a result of the furlough scheme.

Despite these expectations, over half (56%) of employers said that a four day working week could never happen in their organisation. The majority (63%) of employers believe they would need to improve efficiency and work smarter before reducing hours without reducing pay.

And this remains the key sticking point – the need to improve productivity by 25% to compensate for the loss in working hours. So far this remains largely unproven and, just like homeworking, is sure to differ considerably by industry. Concerningly, out of those UK employers that reduced hours in the past five years, nearly a third said they could not achieve the same volume of work/output as before.

What comes next?

The short answer to the question of whether a four day working week is just around the corner would have to be “no, not yet”. The long answer, as ever, is a bit more complicated.

First, there are some real challenges in how to implement four day weeks for those with atypical working patterns. This also means considerable differences across industries and sectors. Experimentation to gain more evidence is key at this stage.

Second, even if we do find evidence of positive wellbeing or productivity impacts, individual employee views are likely to vary widely. At the moment, the majority seem to be happy with the hours they work and the cost of living crisis may well push people towards seeking more hours or pay rises.

Third, employers do not yet believe that reducing hours without reducing pay would boost productivity in and of itself. Nearly two thirds think that improving efficiency and working smarter needs to come first and then hours could be reduced.

The ongoing and planned trials in Scotland are so important. They can provide clear evidence on the impact on employee wellbeing and productivity across a range of sectors. And if that evidence is positive, we may eventually see attitudes and working patterns change too. After all, it took the largest homeworking experiment in this country’s history to see employees and employers change their minds.

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