OPINION20 February 2024

Why we need to try the four-day work week

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To protect people and promote productivity, the research sector should trial the four-day week, says Jack Miles.

calendar with number 4 circled in red

Do you want to be more productive? Happier at work? More successful? Have more time but not less money? 

I’m assuming you do. And guess what? Working a four-day work week (with no pay reduction) can help you achieve this and make your company more profitable.

The five-day workweek. 98 years old. Expired?
In 1926 Henry Ford became the first industrialist to institute a five-day workweek. This was so he could create more middle-class people with time to drive cars (his employees).

Fast-forward 98 years and a five-day work week is still the most common structure. But why? Society is different than it was 98 years ago. We've advanced our knowledge of working practices and human health. We've innovative technology available to us. So why haven’t we thought about changing our work week structure? It’s not like it hasn’t people haven’t suggested doing so before…

Are we finally listening?
An alternative to the five-day workweek isn't new news. In 1930, John Keynes predicted that eventually, we'd work a 15-hour work week. In 1965, Richard Nixon predicted that automation would lead to a shorter work week.

By the early 2020s, some progressive companies had started to action these suggestions. Between 2017-2019, Microsoft Japan trialled a four-day week without reducing pay. By 2022, Belgium approved a similar scheme, and in 2023, 60 UK companies entered a nation-wide trial.

Given this momentum, it’s time to ask: when will the four-day work week (without reducing pay) land in the market research sector? Because it should. It’s the answer to some of our sector’s biggest challenges.

Protecting our people
Like all categories, market research’s future lives and dies based on the people who work in it. Our sector offers its current and potential people lots of positives. An endless learning curve. The chance to impact business and society. Travel. Meet new people. An endless list.

But we also need to do more to attract and retain the best talent. Preventing stress and burnout is part of this. Studies from 2023 alone state:

We won't solve this level of stress and burnout with incrementalism. A token ‘wellness afternoon’ off a month won't solve these issues. But the four-day week could.

37% of employees from the recent UK trial reported better physical health after the trial. Yes, 18% of employees reported declines in physical health. But that’s still a net +19% increase in improved physical health. In a separate study, 78% of people reported that a four-day week reduced their stress levels.

Powering up our productivity
In the 2023 GRIT Report, 46% of research buyers stated that speed of results was a key buying criterion. Although that’s down from 60% in 2023, speed is still the biggest factor for research buyers behind quality and cost.

So how can the four-day week help? Doesn't working less days mean less output? Slower deliverables? No, it doesn’t. After trialling it, Microsoft Japan said that working four days instead of five increased employees’ productivity by 40%.

But how?

Working shorter hours means people know they have less time to complete tasks. This means they become more efficient. 45-minute meetings are cut to 30 minutes. People remove themselves from distractions. Why wouldn’t they? Their incentive is an extra day off. Paid!

Pushing up profits
Research is a business, and it’s right to ask if a four-day week will harm profits. The Henley Business School found in 2019 that businesses who trialled a four-day work week made savings of almost £92bn. By the end of 2021, that figure rose to £104bn. This represents 2.2% of the UK’s turnover.

But how? You’re paying people for five days’ work in return for four days?

When people work fewer days, they use less electricity. Print less paper. Waste less ink. But the biggest cost savings are that the four-day week means people are off on sick leave less. Staff retention is higher (as a four-day week raises staff satisfaction). This means companies spend less on recruitment. This drives profitability.

We need to be more profitable. The ONS reports the net rate of return for UK-based private non-financial companies has fallen from 13.7% in 1999 to 9.7% in 2022. Coupled with the UK’s increasing ‘economic inactivity’ rates the four-day work week, with its potential to increase health, wellbeing, and profitability, is an attractive option.

So, what’s stopping us?
The answer is us. That’s not a criticism. Shifting the status quo on anything is hard. Research shows that people need to see a 2.6X benefit of a new behaviour to ditch the status quo. As organisational psychologist Adam Grant has said: "We're remarkably good at anchoring on the past even when it’s irrelevant to the present."

There'll also be view that the four-day week ‘might work for other sectors, but it can't work in research’.

However, the sectors with the most participants in the recent UK trial were marketing and advertising, and professional services, 92% of whom will be continuing with their four-day work week policy.

Let’s practice what we preach
We earn our living by testing and experimenting new ideas. So, let’s test the four-day week. We yearn to work with progressive brands. Let’s be progressive and try a new way of working. We all know evidence matters. And the evidence says suggests the four-day work week has potential.

We’ve nothing to lose. Apart from our people, our productivity levels, and our profitability if we stick to the 98 year-old status quo. So, let’s practice what we preach and test a progressive idea that the evidence suggests will work.

Jack Miles is senior research director at Northstar/HarrisX

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