Shorter working weeks and flexible working aren’t just temporary consequences of the pandemic – they are the future for our workforce

Covid-19 has triggered a seismic shift in operational and cultural norms in the workplace.

Gone are the days of packed underground carriages, crippling traffic jams and crowded offices, as social distancing measures have forced companies to adopt remote and flexible working options. 

One of the most prominent working practices to emerge from the pandemic is the four-day week – a concept rapidly gaining traction worldwide with hugely successful companies such as Microsoft and Unilever having already trialled the approach with overwhelmingly positive results.

I always disliked the idea of a four-day week. I was raised by a pair of academics, whose traditional ideals and adherence to the term-time schedule meant that any alternative to the five-day week sounded absurd. Four days isn’t enough to fit all the lessons in, afterall!

Entering the world of work, I settled comfortably into the age-old routine of five days on, two days off without issue for years – until my good old-fashioned work week was turned upside down by the pandemic and I was forced to take on a new role as a consultant working four days per week.

The uncertainty of no guaranteed monthly income, irregular hours and a lack of routine was unsettling to say the least. Yet almost six months into the new format, I’m more productive, efficient and producing better results than ever before – and the prospect of a full five-day slog seems wholly unnecessary (and a little-bit soul-destroying).

So, why is a four-day week becoming so popular? For many business leaders and over-burdened employees alike, the answers may not be immediately apparent. The primary concern for such individuals considering this new approach is clear: how can you possibly get a whole week’s worth of work done in just four days?

Well, pretty easily as it turns out. Losing a whole working day has by no means reduced my working output, and it came as no surprise when I discovered a study by the University of Reading that found almost two-thirds of employers offering a four-day week reported an increase in staff productivity and an improvement in the quality of work produced – and saved millions of pounds in the process.

Our productivity is influenced by a myriad of factors, of which total time spent at work is arguably one of the least important. The efficiency with which we complete tasks, mental health and personal circumstances are all inextricably linked to our overall success at work – and a four-day week only goes to ameliorate all of the above.

A two-year trial conducted amongst Swedish nurses which reduced the working week by 10 hours found that the nurses working shorter hours logged less sick leave, reported better-perceived health and boosted their productivity by organising 85% more activities for their patients, with nurses reporting increased tiredness and losing out on valuable family time following their return to full shifts.

Moreover, when it comes to equality at work, research from the Government Equalities Office has revealed that roughly two million people in Britain are unemployment due to childcare responsibilities, 89% of which are women. A four-day week can only contribute towards a better work-life balance and reduced childcare difficulties.

We are still embroiled in the grip of the pandemic, and the extent to which traditional working norms will continue to transform beyond Covid remains to be seen. At the very least, the events of the past year have without doubt raised questions around the rigidity of old working practices. We can only hope that governments and business leaders alike come to understand the importance of worker satisfaction, health and happiness when it comes to productivity, and implement new working options accordingly.

The introduction of a four-day week would be a good start!