In Britain, a New Test of an Old Dream: The 4-Day Workweek

LONDON — Thousands of employees across 70 companies in Britain started the first day of a four-day workweek on Monday, a pilot program that is the latest test in the decades-long quest to scale back workers’ hours while they earn the same amount of pay.

The six-month trial was organized by the nonprofit groups 4 Day Week Global and 4 Day Week UK Campaign, and Autonomy, an organization that studies the impact of labor on well-being. Researchers at Cambridge University, Oxford University and Boston College will assess its effect on productivity and quality of life and will announce results in 2023, the organizers said in a statement.

The program in Britain follows similar efforts in other countries, including Iceland, New Zealand, Scotland and the United States, where companies have embraced greater flexibility in work hours as more people worked remotely and adjusted their schedules during the pandemic.

“After the pandemic, people want a work-life balance,” Joe Ryle, the campaign director for the 4 Day Week Campaign, said in an interview. “They want to be working less.”

More than 3,300 workers in banks, marketing, health care, financial services, retail, hospitality and other industries in Britain are taking part in the pilot, the organizers said. Mr. Ryle said the data would be collected through interviews and staff surveys, and through the measures each company uses to assess its productivity.

“We’ll be analyzing how employees respond to having an extra day off, in terms of stress and burnout, job and life satisfaction, health, sleep, energy use, travel and many other aspects of life,” Juliet Schor, a sociology professor at Boston College and the lead researcher on the project, said.

In Britain, the experiment began as employees trickled back to work after a four-day holiday honoring the 70-year reign of Queen Elizabeth II.

Ed Siegel, the chief executive officer of Charity Bank, one of the companies taking part in the pilot program, said a shorter workweek was a logical next step for a happier work force.

“We have long been a champion of flexible working, but the pandemic really moved the goal posts in this regard,” he said.

Platten’s, a fish and chip shop in Norfolk, England, is also participating in the program.

“We believe that by giving our staff a better work-life balance they can work more efficiently and effectively,” Callum Howard, a spokesman for the restaurant, said.

The four-day workweek has been a workplace dream for decades. In 1956, then-Vice President Richard Nixon predicted such an arrangement in the “not too distant future.” But the reality has been unevenly implemented globally over the years, Dr. Schor, who is also leading research into other trials, said in a telephone interview.

Individual companies have tailored their approaches, particularly as the pandemic upended traditional work culture. In the United States, some companies allowed employees to trim their workweek, by cutting out Fridays, working hybrid shifts, taking pay cuts for fewer hours or setting their own timetables.

In New Zealand, the company Unilever kicked off a shorter workweek trial in 2020. In Iceland, a trial with a weekly work time reduction to 35 or 36 hours, involving about 2,500 government workers, has expanded during the pandemic, with 86 percent of all Icelandic workers now on, or eligible for, shorter time schedules, Dr. Schor said.

Most of the efforts are taking place in the private sector, but governments in Scotland and Spain have announced support, including subsidies, for four-day workweeks, she said. Companies in Ireland and Australia are starting trials on Aug. 1, and two more trials are starting in the United States and Canada in October.

Working from home during the pandemic has been the main factor driving the growing momentum for a shorter workweek, Dr. Schor said. “It made employers realize they could trust their workers,” she said.

Companies are also being forced to restructure the way they work.

“The companies that are really successful in this take activities off the plates of people,” she said. “The most common work reorganization has to do with meetings — the excessive number of meetings, excessive length and lack of efficiency in meetings.”

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