Potential pitfalls of a four-day week

16 June 2022

Businesses looking to switch to a four-day working week should approach the move with caution, a leading West Midlands employment lawyer has warned.

A move towards a reduced working week is gathering pace with the biggest ever pilot now underway in the UK involving 3,300 workers at 70 companies, from local chip shops to large financial firms.

Those workers involved are receiving 100 per cent pay for 80 per cent of the work - with a condition that 100 per cent productivity is maintained.

It follows successful trials elsewhere which have shown that weekly productivity can be maintained, while improving employee wellbeing and reducing office costs.

It will sound an attractive proposition to many – but Tim Jones, head of employment at law firm Higgs LLP, has warned businesses to consider all ramifications before making the change.

Tim said: “The idea of a four-day week is exciting for many and there are some initial reports which suggest that it is feasible to maintain productivity while enjoying more days off.

“I wouldn’t want to discourage any business from exploring the possibility, but I would warn that it is not a panacea and that careful planning is required.”

For most businesses, particularly those in the service sector, switching to a four-day week is not as simple as closing down from Friday to Sunday. Whether the business traditionally operates for five or seven days, staff will need to be placed on a rota so that everyone is not off at the same time.

“This can cause tension amongst employees as work needs to be handed over more frequently,” said Tim. “Good management is required to ensure this process doesn’t negatively affect morale.”

Any change to working conditions is likely to require new terms being agreed.

Generally employees have to be notified and agree any contractual changes. Many contracts will have a flexibility clause to say they can be changed – but even if this is the case, the employer still has a duty to maintain an employee’s trust and confidence. The best way to implement change – and the method which carries the lowest risk of subsequent challenges – is to have written agreement from affected employees.

“Other issues such as how the change affects annual leave allowance also need to be agreed.”

Another area of potential conflict is around the Equality Act 2010. Some businesses will inevitably ask their people to work longer hours on the four working days, even if the additional time doesn’t equate to a full day.

Tim warned: “While many employees might be more than happy with this arrangement, adverse impact on workers with ‘protected characteristics' under the Act, including mothers who need to pick up their children from school, needs to be considered to avoid sex discrimination.

“If pay is to be affected as a result of fewer days worked, companies should consider how that will impact those who are on the National Living Wage. Could some be allowed to continue working five days if they need to?”

In moving to four days, extra caution will need to be taken when dealing with part-time workers to ensure they are not being treated any less favourably than their full-time counterparts, Tim said.

He added: “My best advice to any business making the shift is to start slowly. For example, consider trying the shorter week with one department, assessing what worked and what didn’t, before rolling it our company-wide.

“The working world is changing rapidly. At the moment we have an employee-positive market where businesses are struggling to recruit and retain staff.

“The four-day week will work for many businesses, I’m sure of that, but it must be approached with thought and with consideration for all employees.

“And it is worth remembering that while many people will relish the thought of working fewer days, others will be terrified at the thought.

“Many people already struggle to complete all their work from Monday to Friday. Removing a working day could mean people feeling more stressed trying to cram everything in to four days, making more mistakes – and possibly working more throughout the weekend to catch up.”

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