A calendar is sitting on a grey wooden floor against a painted blue wall.
Image: © MR/Stock.adobe.com

Four-day weeks: The future or still just a fantasy?

24 Aug 2020

Are four-day weeks the future? PwC’s Ger McDonough explains why ‘smart working’ will be critical to making more flexible employment options a reality.

Click here to view the Future of Work Week series.

If you had the choice, would you pick a higher salary or four-day weeks? When Donegal digital publishing company 3D Issue asked its employees that very question, every single person went for the latter.

Its CEO Paul McNulty gave them the choice between a 20pc pay increase or a shorter week. “Employers tend to default to money as a reward, but for many people it’s not a primary driver,” he said.

3D issue is a small company of 15 people, but much bigger corporations have also dipped their toes in the four-day week waters. In late 2019, Microsoft Japan published the results of its month-long trial called the Work-Life Choice Challenge Summer 2019.

For all of August, its entire workforce – 2,300 people – got five Fridays off in a row. Their salaries didn’t change and they received up to an additional ¥100,000 to invest in learning new skills or family holidays.

Overall, Microsoft Japan saw greater happiness, a 40pc increase in productivity and reduced environmental impact as a result of the trial.

How realistic are we being?

So how far are we from a four-day week in Ireland? Covid-19 has shown us how quickly we can adapt to entirely new ways of working, but there have been groups advocating for shorter weeks for some time now.

Four Day Week Ireland (4DWI), for example, has been campaigning for greater conversation around four-day weeks since September last year. It comprises trade unions, businesses, environmentalists, women’s rights organisations and academics, among others, all committed to changing the narrative around how we currently view productivity and longer working hours.

When it launched, Fórsa director of campaigning Joe O’Connor explained why the trade union was backing the initiative: “We believe that we should be talking about productivity rather than time, and in particular when you look at the technological changes that are coming down the line – the fourth industrial revolution of artificial intelligence, automation – it’s vitally important that the benefits from that are shared with workers.

“We’re pushing for this because we believe there’s a need for a gradual, steady and managed transition to a shorter working week for all workers in the public and private sector.”

And, in addition to 3D Issue, some other Irish companies have been vocal about the positive experiences they’ve had in changing to a four-day week. A Galway-based recruitment company, ICE Group, said that “the adoption of a four-day working week is yet another way in which we can grow and evolve our business to work for our employees and our clients”.

ICE is a business that operates six days a week and yet all of its full-time employees now work just four days without any impact on their salaries. The company answers questions about making the change here.

Are four-day weeks really a good idea?

Companies in the UK have been putting four-day weeks to the test, too. MRL Consulting, a UK recruitment agency, made the change without updating its employees’ salaries, annual leave entitlements or benefits.

Speaking about it, the company’s chief executive, David Stone, said that the UK “has a problem with productivity”. On average, he continued, employees are believed to do “about three hours of actual work in an eight-hour day”.

“If we take out the time spent scrolling, socialising and procrastinating, it is absolutely possible to complete the same amount of work with one day fewer,” Stone said. “Not only that, but I believe a four-day week is positively better for business.

My team is healthier both mentally and physically than they were five months ago and that means that when they are here, they are focused, engaged and determined to get the job done.”

Flexibility is here to stay

Ger McDonough, people and organisation partner at PwC Ireland, spoke to me about the heightened need for more flexible working options in the future.

“Flexibility has rapidly embedded itself into work life,” he said. “A recent PwC Ireland survey revealed that more than three-quarters of Irish finance leaders anticipated greater work flexibility and remote working in the future.

“They also envisaged new ways of working to be a permanent feature of working: three in every four Irish finance leaders are factoring flexibility and new models of working into their plans. That’s quite a turnaround.”

For employers not yet ready to fully transition to a four-day week, a middle ground could be introducing semi-permanent shorter hours or giving staff the option to work from home for one full day every week. Basecamp, for example, allows its employees to work four days each week every summer, while Wildbit adjusts its shorter schedules throughout the year.

In a recent PwC US survey, McDonough said, permanent flexible work weeks had “broad support”: “Most office staff (83pc) wanted to work from home at least one day a week and half of employers (55pc) anticipated that most of their people will do so long after Covid-19 is not a concern.”

Fresh methods of accommodating employees’ diverse needs, he added, will help “alleviate pressures to be ‘always on’ and stay connected to the company”.

Smart working is the key

What will we need to make four-day weeks and other flexible working options a reality? We simply need to get smarter about it, according to McDonough.

“Smart working, using technological innovations, is a key enabler to staying connected and improving the working experience while maximising productivity,” he explained. “Getting this new way of working right requires ongoing engagement, open-mindedness, trust and connectedness.

“At the same time, building and retaining key skills will be paramount. One-fifth of Irish finance leaders also recently reported not having enough people to do critical work. Companies really need to continue to focus on strengthening critical skills, building new skillsets – including digital – for the future and supporting employee wellbeing and resilience.”

McDonough shared how his team has been prioritising flexible working at PwC recently: “We’ve had strong flexibility policies here at PwC. It’s part and parcel of the nature of our work with clients, at home and abroad.

“What we’ve found over the years is that to be a really flexible workplace, one size doesn’t fit all. Given our experience with Covid and the success we’ve had with all of our people working remotely, we can expect even more flexible working in the future.”

Lisa Ardill
By Lisa Ardill

Lisa Ardill joined Silicon Republic as senior careers reporter in July 2019. She has a BA in neuroscience and a master’s degree in science communication. She is also a semi-published poet and a big fan of doggos. Lisa briefly served as Careers Editor at Silicon Republic before leaving the company in June 2021.

Loading now, one moment please! Loading