Could a four-day work week win the talent you need?

a group of young professionals discussing
In February this year, the world’s largest trial of four-day work week added UK results to the research already conducted through Ireland, the US and other countries, and the results continue to be impressive.
Some of the headline wins include organisations reporting a 35 per cent increase in revenue when compared to a similar period from previous years and the UK trial found that there was 57 per cent reduction in staff turnover. Of the organisations that have taken part in the pilot so far, 91 per cent will continue offering a four-day work week.
Businesses in Australia and New Zealand have been doing their own experiments as well with Unilever announcing it would expand its four-day work week trial to Australia after a successful testing period in New Zealand. Their experiment saw absenteeism drop by 34 per cent, stress by 33 per cent and work-life conflicts falling by 67 per cent during the trial.

What does a four-day work week look like?

The main framework being adopted by organisations is based on a simple ratio, 100-80-100. 100 per cent of pay, for 80 per cent of the time in exchange for a commitment to delivering 100 per cent of the outputs.
There are four main variations of how this ratio can be implemented into organisations:  
  • All work stops on day five and an organisation shuts down entirely for one extra day a week. 
  • A staggered approach where different teams or individual staff members take different days off during the week.  
  • Different departments adopt different work patterns.  
  • Staff work a 32-hour average calculated across the year.

How does it affect employees?

Beyond just the performance, productivity and business outcomes, the trial also assessed a wide range of well-being metrics, including stress levels, work satisfaction and physical wellbeing as well as family and household life.  
In all metrics measured, employees reported positive results. The UK report saw 71 per cent of employees reporting reduced levels of burnout, 39 per cent were less stressed, 60 per cent found an increased ability to combine paid work with care responsibilities and 62 per cent reported it being easier to combine work with social life.  
With separate research conducted by the Oxford University’s Saïd Business School reporting that happy employees are 13 per cent more productive, the stats are a further compelling reason to consider experimenting with reduced work hours for the same pay and output.

More than just a shorter work week

Another reason productivity isn’t dipping in these trials is that a four-day work week is redesigning the way a working day might look. Before embarking on the trial, organisations considered measures that would allow employees to work in a more focused way, including holding fewer and shorter meetings, time blocking for focus periods and encouraging monotasking, so time isn’t wasted switching between tasks.

How to pilot a four-day work week

Convinced? Before starting a four-day work week trial in your organisation, consider these steps.
  • Define and measure your goals and metrics: Before considering how to implement a four-day work week, you will need to clarify the goals and metrics you want to use to define success. Indeed, the entire idea of this model of working is to remove our focus of success or ‘working hard’ away from time spent at the computer to performance outputs instead. Each department, in fact perhaps each individual, will have different outputs against which success could be measured.
  • Start planning: Both employees and business leaders need to come together to help implement the program. The more employees are involved in the initial planning process, the more engaged they’ll be with the initiative. Committees can be formed to help identify and analyse potential issues that may arise, and there are some key questions that need to be raised in this process, such as: which days are we able to take off? Does it need to be split among front, middle and back office of the organisation, or will the teams be defined in different ways? How do we ensure it doesn’t impact our clients in anyway? How do we manage teams so that there is cover for personal days off or annual holidays?
  • Communicate: There are many stakeholders, both external and internal, that will have valid concerns about the model, so you need a communication plan to address these. Deliver clear communications about the reasons for coming to this decision, and that it doesn’t mean a cut in pay which can be a popular misconception regarding the four-day work week. Ask your employees for suggestions on how they can be more productive during the day and ensure appropriate communication channels are opened so a two-way conversation can continue throughout the trial.
  • Testing time: Time to run the pilot trial. Between three and six months should be long enough to produce useable data. It’s important to communicate that this is a time to test and learn and that there will be opportunities to make mistakes and learn from them. Ensure there’s a sense of psychological safety throughout the process so participants can trust that mistakes are tolerated and learnt from, not punished.
  • Assess: To help assess at the conclusion of a pilot study, use either group or one-on-one meetings with employees to gauge their experience. As you gather qualitive data, ensure you include quantitative measures as well. These should measure both business and employee outcomes. Once you’ve gathered these insights, you can decide whether you want to scale up the program to include more members. If you do decide to make it either bigger or permanent, ensure there’s a continuous feedback loop so any challenges can be addressed.

Risks to watch for

There are some organisations that need a workforce in every day, how could these be impacted?

Remember, a four-day work week doesn’t have to look like every employee having Monday or Friday off. There are four main models that can be used with teams staggering days off, shorter days being worked across all five days or even seasonally adjusted timings.

Lower productivity

To date, these reports have shown that a reduction in the number of hours at work doesn’t equal lower productivity. Better use of time, less stress or mental health problems and time to concentrate on thoughtful tasks all helped workers in these trials maintain, and even improve, their productivity within the shorter working week. However it’s understandably a key concern for organisations, so ensure there are strong markers of success that are constantly measured throughout the trial to catch any slips in productivity.

What if a trial goes badly?

It’s important to communicate clearly at the beginning of any pilot that it is just that, a pilot. If a trial uncovers unexpected or unintended negative consequences, and the model is abandoned, be prepared to share the results with your teams so they understand the data behind the decision.

Adding to the stress levels

There have been some reports that trying to do the same amount of work in a constrained timeline is creating even more stress for some employees as they struggle to keep outputs high in reduced hours. Again, despite its name, the four-day work week doesn’t have to look like only four days working a week. Encourage your teams to find a way of reducing their work hours in a way that works for their workloads and roles.

A talent attraction superpower?

In the UK, after the trial, 90 per cent of employees said they definitely wanted to continue on a four-day work week and 15 per cent said that no amount of money would make them accept a five-day schedule at their next job. As the trials were only conducted in February this year, further ongoing research needs to be captured and considered. However, with competition for the right skills still high, the offer of a four-day work week could be another carrot to add to your EVP arsenal to help with staff attraction and retention strategies. 

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