This week, thousands of UK employees started the world’s biggest four-day working week trial. Over the next six months, employers and employees involved in the trial will embrace a 100:80:100 model of working, meaning staff will work 80% of the time for 100% of their salary.
Understandably, the four-day week pilot has been met with a great deal of excitement, as it has the potential to radically change traditional ways of working. However, outcomes from the trial will take time to affect any broader change, and this won’t happen overnight.
With this in mind, it’s perhaps more useful to first consider the intricacies of the pilot and what it means for those taking part.
Shortening the working week creates complexities for both staff and employers. Both parties must think about the worst-case scenario of productivity dropping to a point where it significantly compromises the operation of the business. If a decline in performance starts to jeopardise revenue, how does the organisation address this?
Similarly, during the pilot, it’s plausible some employees may find they feel unable to maintain productivity during the shorter week. This could lead to extra hours being crammed into a four-day week and may also risk stress and anxiety issues. Whilst the pilot is intended to test such circumstances, employers must remain mindful of their duty of care to staff.
Temporary adjustments to employment contracts will go some way to helping businesses manage these challenges. However, adjustments to terms and conditions may not necessarily help resolve more practical challenges. For example, an employee wanting to revert to working five days could prove difficult to accommodate when most staff and premises are operating on a four-day basis.
Looking towards the end of trial, employers will also have to be mindful of managing the transition back to a five-day week. Businesses are unlikely to have any obligation to continue the four-day week and will have to make it expressly clear in communications or letters of variation of contract, which set out the temporary arrangements. Clear communication will be key to explaining to employees the business and welfare reasons for working five days.
It’s positive to see the four-day week trial taking place, and it will be interesting to learn about its outcomes. It should be remembered, though, that reducing the working week by 20% would be a huge step and may not be possible in all sectors.
Where change is more viable, it will have significant ramifications for employment terms and conditions. In the interim, a more effective approach for staff and employers could be to broaden flexible working arrangements.
Richard Kay is a senior associate specialising in employment law at Forbes Solicitors