July 2, 2022

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What would you do with a three-day weekend? Workers across the world are being asked to consider this, as trials for a four-day working week are explored internationally. Early adopters include Microsoft in Japan; Unilever in New Zealand; and a host of other small and mid-size fashion and beauty brands.

Extensive trials in Iceland — which involved up to one per cent of its working population from 2015 to 2019 — found that shorter weeks gave workers more time for family, hobbies and rest, with particularly positive results for single parents and women in heterosexual relationships, whose partners took on a more equitable share of domestic responsibilities. As a result of these trials, 86 per cent of Iceland’s entire working population have either gained the right to shorter hours or actually moved to them.

The potential benefits go further than individual happiness and productivity. One study found that a four-day week could shrink the UK’s carbon footprint by 127 million tonnes per year by 2025. UK skincare brand Inlight Beauty says it has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 14.6 per cent since dropping to 4.5 days, with additional savings on its energy and water bills. Other fashion and beauty brands are trialling it from Spanish fashion label Desigual to US fintech startup Bolt, a one-click checkout provider used by Forever21 and Badgley Mischka. Advocates for degrowth – a planned reduction of the economy to bring it within planetary boundaries – say reduced working hours may also help curb the production and consumption of new goods.

When coupled with remote and flexible working, a four-day week could also lead to more employment of disabled talent. That’s a growing pool post-pandemic, points out Ellen Jones, a change-enabler at inclusive workplace consultancy Utopia. “The high levels of burnout and absenteeism during the pandemic showed that people are not machines, but the disabled community has been talking about this for years,” she says.

“A four-day week with no loss of pay to workers has been a long-standing demand of the trade union movement, which won us the two-day weekend almost a century ago,” says Joe Ryle, campaign director at advocacy and advisory group Four Day Week Campaign in the UK. Over 500 UK-based companies have registered their interest for the organisation’s upcoming trial, which will run for six months from June. The end goal is for government legislation to implement a maximum work week of 32 hours (the limit currently stands at 48 hours, averaged over 17 weeks).

Short-term pilots help work out the kinks

A big driver for the four-day week is putting productivity over presenteeism, the culture of showing up at the workplace to be seen without necessarily being productive. Ahead of pilots, businesses should conduct an audit of their working practises, says Jack Kellam of independent research organisation Autonomy. This can help determine which meetings could be replaced by email exchanges, which processes could be streamlined, and which employees are bearing too much of the workload.