Modus

Four-day work week: coming to the built environment?

Shorter working weeks with no loss of pay to employees have been successful in a series of global trials – staff are better rested, happier and more productive

Author:

  • Mark Williams

24 November 2023

Illustrations by Miguel Porlan

Trials of a four-day working week have been taking place around the world and results show that both employers and employees who have experimented with shorter working hours are strongly in favour of keeping them.

In the UK, a recent six-month pilot programme conducted by the 4 Day Week Campaign involved 60 companies and nearly 3,000 employees. There was no loss of pay for workers and the positive results (92% of companies decided to continue with 32-hour weeks) were in keeping with global evidence, demonstrating the benefits of reduced-hour, output-focused working.  

Iceland ran similar trials between 2015 and 2019 for 2,500 workers, which equates to roughly 1% of the country’s working adult population. It was considered a big success and many workers made the switch to shorter hours, although in this case it was from 40 to 35 hours.

In Japan, Microsoft also trialled the four-day workweek with its employees in 2019. Employees were happier, more productive and took less time off during the month-long experiment.

But how might the four-day working week be applied to the built environment, with its mixture of office work and on-site physical labour? Would it improve productivity or might the reduction in working hours mean increased lead times for projects?

 

Well rested

Employees taking part in the UK trial were asked to report how often they experienced sleep difficulties or insomnia on a four-point scale. This was compared to their baseline answers given before the trial began. The prevalence of sleep problems declined noticeably – 40% said they’d experienced a reduction in sleep difficulties.

 

 

 

The extra rest could be particularly helpful for those doing physical construction jobs. A 2018 report by Construction News found that just 14% of labourers work fewer than 40 hours a week, while 13% worked more than 60 hours a week. And tired workers are 62% more likely to have an accident, which in construction could be potentially fatal.

The four-day working week trials already mentioned and in those in US, Australia and New Zealand have tended to focus on ‘white collar’ jobs but more research involving labourers and site workers could be equally illuminating.

Based in Singapore, Bill Jones FRICS is the global corporate real estate and workplace manager for Maxeon Solar Technologies. He says: "The Singapore government has suggested employees and employers adopt a ‘flexible mindset’ on the concept of a four-day working week.

“My own feeling is that the hybrid model will evolve here, rather than the four-day week simply because of office workers’ fears that employers will use a four-day week to reduce the monthly pay cheque when the opportunity arises,” he adds.

 

No change to workload

The UK trial also found that 78% of employees reported no change to their workload, despite having one day less to carry out those tasks. This is crucial, as the extra day off would be far less beneficial if staff weren’t able to fully relax because of the looming spectre of unfinished work or unread emails.

It is also significant that, during the six-month trial, stress for employees significantly declined with 71% of employees reporting lower levels of burnout. This had a knock-on effect for talent retention – the number of staff leaving participating companies decreased significantly, dropping by 57% over the trial period.

Illustrated plants coming out of a calendar that is ripped in half

“A four-day working week with no loss of pay could reduce the UK’s carbon emissions by 127m tonnes” Report for 4 Day Week Global

 

 

Working hours are steadily shrinking

Over the past 150 years, our average working hours have been decreasing steadily. Technological innovation that means menial jobs can be automated has meant employees can focus on more complex or high value tasks. We’re working less and GDP (gross domestic product) per capita is increasing.

As long ago as 1956, then US vice-president Richard Nixon said he believed the four-day working week was coming in the “not too distant future” and would create a fuller family life for every American. Clearly, it hasn’t happened yet but it’s a conversation that’s happening in industries all over the world.

If you take the reduction in average working hours seen during the past 40 years and extrapolate it ahead another decade or so, it suggests that more widespread implementation of four-day working weeks isn't far off for many industries.

But what effect might this have on the commercial real estate sector in terms of demand for office space? “In Singapore, major employers have moved to a hybrid model of three days in the office, two days remote,” says Jones. “Fridays here are very much the favoured work from home day (offices here are only 10% occupied on Fridays).

“This hybrid model has seen many corporates downsize their real estate footprint, but further downsizing can only happen if employers start to manage the hybrid model in a more effective way – for example, by balancing the hybrid model to ensure maximum use of the reduced footprint.

“My own prediction is that the vacant space created by this ongoing shift will be absorbed by the growth of the co-living sector here in Singapore, especially in the secondary commercial areas.”

Three pencils lined up with illustrated hands holding them, each pencil looking less worn and damaged

“The Singapore government has suggested employees and employers adopt a ‘flexible mindset’ on the concept of a four-day working week” Bill Jones FRICS, Maxeon Solar Technologies

Shorter weeks, greener companies

A study conducted in 2021 by Platform London for 4 Day Week Global found that a four-day working week with no loss of pay could reduce the UK’s carbon emissions by 127m tonnes – a reduction of 21.3% or the equivalent of taking 27m cars off the road.

That’s in large part due to fall in commuting it would create. Data from the UK trial shared with BBC Future Planet showed a 10% decrease over the pilot period, from 3.5 hours to 3.15 hours per week, for the companies which tracked commuting time. In a 2022 US trial, the decline was even greater at 27%, from 3.56 to 2.59 hours a week. That could have significant implications for a company’s ESG goals.

For environmental consultancy Tyler Grange, which participated in the UK trial, the results were overwhelmingly positive – they reported a daily productivity increase of 22%, and a 21% reduction in the number of miles travelled by car.

When you consider that the revenue of companies in the UK trial stayed broadly the same, rising by 1.4% on average, it’s hardly surprising that nine out of 10 decided to keep the four-day week. While there are plenty of sectors where it is much harder to switch to the shorter week, it’s an option that is giving employers around the world some serious food for thought.

 

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