#CamFest Speaker Spotlight

Dr David Frayne

The results from the largest four-day working week trial in the world were published on Tuesday 21 February 2023. Dr David Frayne, Research Associate, Digital Futures at Work Research Centre, University of Cambridge, discusses his involvement in the research and the overall findings.

Dr Frayne will be revealing the full findings, alongside lead researcher, Professor Brendan Burchell, on 31 March, during their event, THE FOUR-DAY WEEK: HERE TO STAY?

What exactly is a four-day week? Does it mean everyone gets Friday off?

The four-day week is usually seen as a 20% working time reduction, introduced without a loss in pay. This was the condition that companies had to meet to be part of our pilot study, but beyond that, it was really up to each company to decide how to go about things.

In companies where collaboration was important, there was a fixed day off for everyone, whereas in other companies, where there were machines to keep running or phones to answer, the day off was staggered among staff to allow continuity over five days. We saw other arrangements as well, plus companies had to figure out things such as how to involve their part-time workers, and whether or not bank holidays would bring about a three-day week.

What are the key findings from the study?

The study ran for six months, with some very positive outcomes. To focus on just a few headlines: staff on average rated the experience an 8.3 / 10 in terms of satisfaction, with 56/61 companies deciding to continue with the four-day week, either by extending their trial or making it permanent. Another key finding was that 64% of the companies managed to implement their four-day week without staff feeling that work had become more intense.

Beyond the stats, staff talked to us about the benefits to their everyday lives. Nobody’s life had taken a radical change in direction (this was only a short pilot, after all), but a lot of people told us how happy they were to have more space for their existing interests and responsibilities. An additional day off to get things done meant that people’s weekends were no longer monopolised by dreaded ‘life admin’. People were sleeping better or enjoying cooking a meal. A lot of staff also said that having time to themselves now involved less guilt. Being off when friends and family were still working was often seen as a bonus!

Are there any benefits to the shorter working week that you didn’t envisage?

One of the things that stood out to me were the financial savings people could make by working one day less, which is obviously very significant in a cost of living crisis. People could do more for themselves. We had participants, for example, who had childcare responsibilities and a partner working in the same company. By taking alternating days off, these couples could reduce their reliance on private childcare by 40%, which is a big financial saving. One person was tearful talking about how much it had helped them. It led me to wonder what other savings people could make with the benefit of a permanent four-day week.

Why do you think the study has been so successful for companies?

The UK pilot was unique because it included a large interview component, which allowed our researchers to dig down into what was happening on the ground. One of the things we asked about was what kind of preparations companies made before the pilot, and I would put a lot of the success down to the high level of staff involvement. In the buildup to the pilot, companies encouraged staff to review their work processes, anticipate likely problems, make proposals and ask questions. This often became the basis for an implementation strategy, but it also helped create a sense of collective purpose, which is important when there is a big organisational change happening. I would put a lot of the success we saw down to the level of staff involvement.

Did some companies report a negative response to the four-day working week?

We did interview a couple of staff members who felt it wasn’t for them. They were younger people who loved their work, or were just getting started in their careers. They didn’t hate the four-day week, by any means, but they were using that fifth day for career-related things such as personal projects or freelancing.

We also heard a few reports of stress and tension among staff in a small minority of companies, who opted to implement their four-day week in a very top-down and conditional way. By this I mean that the managers set precise performance targets for individual staff or teams to meet in order to stay on the pilot, leading to a situation where some staff were working a four-day week while others were kicked back to five. I personally question this interpretation of a four-day week. It’s not in keeping with the vast majority of companies, who saw the pilot as something to be worked-through collectively.

Can you see a time soon where we’ll all be working four-day weeks? Or will it simply not be viable for some companies and industries?

The UK pilot shows that the four-day week can be more than a dream. It is also helping bust the stereotype that the policy is the preserve of trendy young startups; we got a lot of positive insights from manufacturers, the third sector and even a chip shop. I am confident these examples will inspire other companies to give it a try.

Will we all be working four-day weeks soon? That is a tougher question. There is so much to celebrate about the innovative companies that are pioneering this, but reducing working time on a societal scale is going to need more thinking about what role the government would need to play in legislating for change and supporting hours reductions in the public sector, where we know some workers are already stretched to the limit. Hiring more people in order to share the necessary work more widely would need to be part of the strategy in some areas.

I think unions also have a role in making sure reductions happen fairly, without adding to work pressure or being traded off against existing staff rights and benefits. There are different opinions on this, but I do not believe we can rely purely on business motivations to bring about the full societal change you are asking about. But I am very optimistic about change. The discussion really seems to be taking off at the national level in Wales and Scotland, for example, so watch this space.

Are there any similarities between the campaign for the four-day week and the 19th-century campaign for a two-day weekend?

Yes, absolutely. I would say to anyone who doubts the possibility of reducing working time to look at history, where we find a whole legacy of precedents, struggles and policies to draw on for inspiration. History shows conclusively that the five-day week is not the ‘norm’ we often think it is. What passes as normal was written and can be rewritten.

The UK 4 Day Week pilot study was a collective effort, with many moving parts. David wishes to acknowledge fellow pilot researchers Brendan Burchell, Niamh Bridson Hubbard, Jon White, Daiga Kamarāde and Franne Mullens, as well as the project directors at Autonomy, partners at Boston College and 4 Day Week Global.

Read more about the research: www.cam.ac.uk/stories/fourdayweek