Workers are fed up.
More than two years into the pandemic, many have burned out, quit their jobs or are struggling to make ends meet as record inflation takes a huge bite out of their paychecks.
But, for the past eight weeks, thousands of people in the United Kingdom have tested a four-day schedule — with no cut to their pay — that could help usher in a new era of work.
It’s the world’s biggest trial of a four-day work week so far. Already, some workers have said they feel happier, healthier and are doing better in their jobs.
Lisa Gilbert, a lending services manager at Charity Bank, an ethical loans provider in the southwest of England, describes her new routine as “phenomenal.”
“I can really enjoy my weekend now because I’ve got my Friday for my chores and my other bits and pieces or… if I just want to take my mum out for a walk I can do that now without feeling guilty,”she told CNN Business.
Gilbert cares for her son and two elderly parents. The extra day off a week means she no longer has to collect her groceries at 6 o’clock on a Saturday morning, and she can devote more time to her family.
“I find that I’m saying ‘yes we can’ as opposed to ‘no sorry we can’t,’” she said.
The six-month pilot commits 3,300 workers across 70 companies to work 80% of their usual week in exchange for promising to maintain 100% of their productivity.
The program is being run by not-for-profit 4 Day Week Global, Autonomy, a think tank, and the 4 Day Week UK Campaign in partnership with researchers from Cambridge University, Oxford University and Boston College.
Researchers will measure the impact the new working pattern will have on productivity levels, gender equality, the environment as well as worker well-being. At the end of November, companies can decide whether or not to stick with the new schedule.
But, for Gilbert, the verdict is already in: it’s been “life changing,” she said.
The transition has not been without its hiccups, though.
Samantha Losey, managing director at Unity, a public relations agency in London, told CNN Business that the first week was “genuinely chaotic,” with her team unprepared for the shorter work handovers.
“To be totally honest with you, those first two weeks — really a mess. We were all over the shop. I thought I’d made a huge error. I didn’t know what I was doing,” she said.
But her team quickly found ways to make it work. Now, the company has banned all internal meetings longer than five minutes, keeps all client meetings to 30 minutes and has introduced a “traffic light” system to prevent unnecessary disturbances — colleagues have a light on their desk, and set it to ‘green’ if they are happy to talk, ‘amber’ if they are busy but available to speak, and ‘red’ if they do not want to be interrupted.
By the fourth week, Losey said, her team had hit their stride, but admits there is “absolutely” a possibility she could reinstate a five-day schedule if productivity levels drop over the course of the six-month trial.
“There’s a good 25% chance that we won’t get to keep it, but the team so far are fighting incredibly hard for it,” she said.
‘Like a library’
Until last month, Iceland had conducted the world’s biggest pilot of a four-day work week. Between 2015 and 2019, the country put 2,500 of its public sector workers through two trials.
Crucially, those trials found no corresponding drop in productivity — and a dramatic increase in employee well-being.
Gary Conroy, founder and CEO of 5 Squirrels, a skincare product manufacturer on England’s south coast, has brought in “deep work time” to ensure his employees remain productive.
For two hours every morning, and two hours every afternoon, Conroy’s staff ignores emails, calls or Teams messages and concentrates on their projects.
“The whole place goes like a library, and everybody just gets their head down and smashes through the work,” he said.
People spend most of their day on ‘busywork’ — or work for work’s sake — according to a survey of 10,600 workers by Asana last September. The software company found that the workers in the United States spend about 58% of their day on activities such as answering emails and attending meetings, rather than the work they were hired for.
Conroy said meetings at the company used to be a “talking shop,” but are now capped at 30 minutes, and only permitted in the two hours outside of ‘deep work time.’
The results have exceeded everyone’s expectations.
“[The team] started realizing that they were smashing projects that they had always put on the back burner,” Conroy said.
‘Fit for the 21st century’
The extra day has made space for many workers to take up new hobbies, fulfill longstanding ambitions, or simply invest more time in their relationships.
Workers on the trial have taken up cooking classes, piano lessons, volunteering, fishing and rollerskating, their bosses told CNN Business.
For Emily Morrison, an account director at Unity who has battled anxiety for much of her adult life, the benefits have been more fundamental.
“Having more downtime and less ‘Sunday scaries’ over the weekend has helped improve my mental health and approach the week with a more positive attitude, rather than coming in stressed,” she told CNN Business.
More than two years into the pandemic, scores of workers have reached their limit. A McKinsey survey of 5,000 global workers last year found that nearly half reported feeling at least somewhat burned out.
Losey said a major reason she decided to enroll Unity into the pilot was to compensate for the “extraordinary level of burnout” her staff faced during the worst of the pandemic.
Mark Howland, Charity Bank’s director of marketing and communications, told CNN Business that he uses his day off to improve his health and fitness.
He has always wanted to compete in a triathlon, but has felt guilty spending time away from his family to train. Not anymore.
“With my day off I’ve been going on quite long bike rides, looking after myself, taking some time out and then having the whole weekend to get things done around the house and to spend time with family,” Howland said.
The bank is unlikely to go back to the way things were.
“The five-day working week is a 20th century concept, which is no longer fit for the 21st century,” he said.