Trials on the feasibility of a four-day week, whereby employees work 32 hours but still get the same pay, have been very encouraging. In the US and Ireland, a six-month trial caried it out last year among 33 companies resulted in positive feedback on company performance, productivity and employee wellbeing. Employees reported less stress and fatigue and had a better work-life balance. 27 of the companies which took part rated the trial nine out of ten.  Positive results were also obtained in the UK, whereby 86% of 70 firms that took part in a trial said it was a success to the point they were keeping the four-day week on permanent basis. Trials in Belgium, Spain, Japan, Australia and New Zealand have also yielded positive results.

Nonetheless, the four-day week is still out of reach for the majority of workers, if not pie in the sky. What have we learnt so far from these trials? Is there a common denominator and are there any economic sectors which are not compatible with this idea?

  • Evidence so far suggest that office-based industries are the best fit to introduce a four-day week. Finance, professional services and knowledge-based roles are at the forefront as they can  introduce measures like meeting-free days to focus purely productivity to make up for the reduction in the weekly hours.
  • In other sectors like those based on the concept of the billable hour, shortening the work week requires a more radical approach as less work could result in less income. In this case the concept could shift to one in which payment is based per project value rather than time.
  • Another lesson learnt is to give different people different days off to coordinate better to avoid any disruption in services.
  • So far, the least prone to introduce the four-day week are the manufacturing industries as there is a direct link between the productivity levels and the time spent at work.
  • However, company size and culture also play an important part. It is no coincidence that very few major international companies have run trials of the four-day week.  Though Microsoft in Japan and Unilever in New Zealand have had positive results, other major corporations have been slow to follow suit. While large companies have the financial capability to make the change, they have the disadvantage of a rigid structure. In practice the four-day week seems to be mostly popular among small and medium enterprises as they are more agile and usually have a CEO who would have ears on the ground when it comes to the impact which such shift would bring about. In other words, when dealing with smaller firms there is less likelihood of red tape and layered structures. That could also be good in the Maltese context, where SMEs are the backbone of the private sector.
  • These trials have also unearthed scenarios whereby resistant bosses and managers might spell trouble.  If managers do not trust employees can make a success of the change, they are reluctant even to test it.  Some managers may view the shorter work week as threatening their control or making it harder to manage employees. In practice this has resulted in managers intensifying performance measurement, monitoring and productivity pressures. The end result was that a four-day week translated in more stressed workers.
  • Needless to say, in sectors like hospitality, retail and catering such as bars, restaurants and shops, a shorter work week is likely to result in a drop in income as workers cannot simply speed up their service. Hence, as things stand it does not seem feasible.

The competitive edge

Experts believe that the four-day week is likely to gain popularity though it might never become mainstream. Perhaps, the game changer in this debate could be the competitive advantage which firms implementing such measure could again.

At a time when there is cutthroat competition for recruitment, the prospect of a four-day week might be key to lure workers. There could be a scenario whereby not offering this possibility might place a firm at a disadvantage to the point that it would have to consider it as a means of survival.  So far Malta lags behind in this respect, as we have not even reached the stage of considering a pilot study. However, given the ongoing debate for better work-life balance and to address certain shortages in workforce, the four-day week could be indeed a game changer.