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Next six months could set a new pace for work-life balance

The only way to ease transition back to office is reduce the time in the office

Poll As return-to-office attempts continue to fail for big tech businesses, another proposed change to the work world is gaining steam: The four-day week.

In the UK, a 70-company trial program the BBC described as "the world's biggest" began this week, with participants paying their employees a regular week's pay for 80 percent of the labor. That pilot may be the largest, but it's hardly the only one.

Some companies have opted to trial the four-day week on their own, like Dell, which recently switched to a shortened week in the Netherlands after previously trialing it in Argentina.

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Kickstarter put its team on four-day weeks in March, while ecommerce platform Bolt adopted it permanently in January. 

The broader UK four-day week trial takes place across six months stretching from June to December this year, with 3,000 workers from across the country taking part, including a few from Canon's UK arm.

Beacon, a London-based CRM company participating in the trial, said there's mounting evidence that four-day work weeks make employees more productive. "Turns out, our happiness and productivity doesn't positively correlate with the number of hours spent at our desks," Beacon CTO David Simpson wrote.

Why now?

It's hard to miss repeated headlines about the changing nature of work since the coronavirus pandemic upended society two years ago. Most of the news has centered on return-to-office initiatives and their failures, but a four-day week had been a topic of discussion for some time prior to the pandemic.

A 2019 Microsoft trial of the four-day work week in Japan resulted in a 40 percent increase in productivity, the company said. Iceland's trials ran from 2015 to 2019, but measured results weren't published until 2021, further pushing the four-day week into the spotlight at the same time as returning to the office became a hot topic. 

The 4 Day Week Global initiative, a non-profit convern that's one of the organizations behind the current six-month four-day work week trial in Britain, may also have something to do with the surge of interest. Founded in 2018, the non-profit is running pilot programs in the US, Canada, the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand, and offers support to companies considering the shift. Brit thinktank Autonomy, Boston College in the US, and the British universities of Oxford and Cambridge are also backing the UK initiative.

According to 4 Day Week Global's research, job performance was maintained with a four-day work week, while stress levels dropped and work/life balance improved significantly, rising from 54 percent to 78 percent who were satisfied with theirs.

Additionally, in the current economic climate 63 percent of businesses surveyed by 4 Day Week Global found it easier to attract and retain employees after switching to a four-day work week. 

"You can be 100 percent productive in 80 percent of the time in many workplaces, and companies adopting this around the world have shown that," 4 Day Week Global lead researcher and Boston College economist Juliet Schor told the BBC. Schor said workers across industries are discovering that their days are filled with unproductive activities that can easily be cut without harming the business. 

Not all businesses will be a good fit for the four-day week: Schor said industries like health care and teaching, where staff is already stretched thin and overworked, wouldn't be able to adapt to a four-day model.

There is, however, the pesky challenge of operational transformation. If executed poorly, a four-day week experiment could further burden those with an already overloaded schedule.

Economist and Institute of Economic Affairs fellow Julian Jessop told the BBC he's skeptical of the four-day work week for what looks to be no other reason than simple math: "You'd have to become 25 percent more productive per day," he said. ®

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