The conversation around the viability of a 4-day working week has picked up. Working for 4 days is said to help teams become more productive, enhance rest time and make employees feel more valued, respected and included. So, will it become the new normal?

In 2022, the largest-ever trial of a 40-day week kicked off in the UK. 61 companies took part in the 6-month experiment and, since then, 56 have decided to keep the policy in place with 18 deciding to make it a permanent strategy. 

The idea is to move from the standard 40-hour working week to a 32-hour week, giving employees more time to themselves, more flexibility, and generating more productivity for businesses. In essence, employees work for the same pay, and the same benefits, but for fewer hours.

It’s proven to significantly reduce stress and illness in the workforce, as well as help with worker retention. According to the University of Cambridge, going to a 4-day week brought about a 65% reduction in sick days, and 71% of employees report less burnout with this approach. 

Moving to a 4-day week probably sounds like a dream to most workers. Who doesn’t love a long weekend? Why not take those few-and-far-between days as the standard rather than the norm? Imagine all the things you could achieve with an extra day without having to think about work. 

For businesses, though, it might give a different impression. What about productivity levels? What about performance? Is it financially sustainable? Especially for startups who need to maximize every single second they have. 

Across Europe, the 4-day working week is under observation. Different companies and governments are giving it a go. We decided to run a poll with our EU-Startups audience to check the appetite for this working approach going forward. We ran the poll, asking if team leaders, managers and C-Level directors would consider implementing a 4-day week. We asked the question on both a Monday and Friday – and the results were largely the same. About ¾ of respondents said that yes, they would consider it! 

Countries embracing the 4-day week

The 4-day working week has been hailed by many as the future of employee productivity. It gives staff more autonomy in an improved work-life balance – two things we have seen boost productivity since the rise of hybrid and remote working. As a result, trade unions across Europe are now calling for the 4-day working week to become standard. 

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In Belgium, for example, employees now have the right to perform a full work week in four days rather than the usual five, without any loss of salary. They can choose how many days they work and can condense their contracted hours in the way that works for them. 

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In the UK, the trial which was run by researchers at Cambridge and Oxford Universities and Boston College, as well as the non-profit advocacy groups 4 Day Week Global, the 4 Day Week UK Campaign and the UK think tank Autonomy, saw a staggering 92% of participants decided to keep the 4-day policy. The set-up consists of a 100:80:100 model, whereby employees get 100% of pay for 80% of their time, in return for 100% productivity. The trial took place in England, and Scotland is due to start one this year. 

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In Spain, the 4-day working week is also under consideration, with a pilot project launched in December 2022. As part of the programme, SMEs will be able to cut their working week by at least half a day without reducing salaries. Companies taking apart can receive aid from a €10 million government fund, but they must develop ways to increase production to compensate for wage cost overruns. It shows the government is interested in pursuing this, considering it’s quite a hefty investment on their part. 

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Iceland has been one of the pioneers of the 4-day working week, trying out the approach back in 2015 with a 4-year project. Now, nearly 90% of the Icelandic population has reduced hours or similar flexi options in place. Researchers document that stress and burnout have decreased and work-life balance is improved. 

The positives 

  • Improved work-life balance, with more time to pursue hobbies, spend time with loved pens and engage in self-care activities
  • Increased productivity with time-consuming and inefficient workplace activities cut
  • Reduced levels of burnout and fatigue, leading to more focus and fewer sick days
  • Reduced costs related to office utilities, equipment and so forth
  • Talent acquisition and retention

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Bizay, a Lisbon-based startup offering a global operating system for product customisation, decided to embark on the 4-day working week and found that satisfaction, productivity and recruitment all improved – a win-win-win if you ask us. The startup reported that 89% of employees prefer the four-day model of working, able to use the time to spend more quality time with family and friends. At the same time, 88% of managers reported they were happy with their team’s performance and productivity actually increased based on KPI-measured metrics. 

When it comes to attracting talent, the firm noted a 300% increase in new job applications, a 35% reduction in turnover and a 4% decrease in stress burnout and anxiety. When asked if they would go back to the standard 5-day mode, the vast majority of workers flagged they’d need at least 30% more pay to do it. 

J​​ose Salgado, Co-founder and Chief Growth Officer at  Bizay: “The first set of results aligns with our initial positive expectations when we invested in this pioneering model. The research shows no negative impact on productivity levels or quality of work, and we’re delighted how much this model has improved the lives and happiness of our employees

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Meanwhile, for Sheffield-based Rivelin Robotics, a startup that took part in the UK pilot programme,  it was a chance to instil a culture ofputting wellbeing first within the company. The firm consulted with the team and decide t take Fridays off, working a slightly extended day the rest of the week. While the founders do acknowledge making the change had some challenges – for startups, resources are tight, and sometimes the work just can’t wait after all – staff overall had a positive experience. Now, the team will take the learnings on board, particularly around how it can work without management teams having to take up the slack. Ideas to solve this problem include accommodating different patterns so there is no day with no staff on call. 

Things to consider 

  • Fewer hours might mean less output
  • Coordinating schedules can be a logistical and organizational nightmare
  • Workload might become unequal
  • Operational challenges, especially for startups with tight resources

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Spendesk has found that whilst employees enjoy and respond well to the policy, it’s important to make sure that the schedule doesn’t become too rigid. Simply using the 4-day week as a symbolic gesture to show flexibility in leadership isn’t the same as being genuinely flexible and supportive to employees. This is what Caroline Tinti, Spendesk’s HR Business Manager urges companies to remember. 

“It’s no surprise that employees are responding well to the four-day working week, but let’s not forget that replacing one rigid schedule with another doesn’t exactly offer the true flexibility that workers desire. People are most productive and happiest when they are trusted to fit work around their lives.”

“What if someone wants half-days on Monday and Friday? Or wants to start and end the day earlier? Or take a longer lunch and work more in the evenings? Instead of imposing a new standard schedule, we need to be looking at total hours worked and give people the freedom to move them around as they see fit.”

The main challenge with going for the 4-day week seems to be the flexibility. Both workers and managers need to be prepared to be flexible and support each other to make the transition work without giving extra stress and pressure on team members. It’s also, of course, a learning curve – each company is different and will need to make it work for their individual needs. 

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For edtech company Treehouse, opting for a 4-day week turned out to be an experiment – and nothing more. The company gave each employee a 32-hour week, letting them take Friday as a day off. However, the company dropped the policy after having to make layoffs – funding it unreconcilable to give some workers the sack while letting others work a shortened week. 

Where could it go?

So, given there is an appetite for the 4-day working week across Europe, the studies seem to show success. It’s boosting productivity and is popular among employees who can enjoy a better work-life balance, as well as save time and money on transport and childcare.

But, just how viable is it?

It seems like the perfect scenario – for less, paid the same. But, for small companies and startups, as well as industries connected to hardened traditions of work culture, means the transition might not be so quick. Gong hybrid and remote saw a substantial bit of resistance and it’s fair to say that a 4-day working week is even more radical. 

Whether a company transitions to the 4-day week will generally depend on each company and its leader’s approach to work culture. For some teams, the increased flexibility and autonomy will simply make sense, but for others, it might be a luxury that’s just out of reach at the moment. Given the track record of the approach to reduce stress, give employees the flexibility they crave and keep work-life balances to the fore – all whilst maintaining productivity – there’s no doubt it might become even more demanded across Europe. 

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