Remote Working: The Emergency Is (Largely) Over ― the Future Starts Today
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COVID-19 forced on businesses a large-scale experiment in remote working, and it has worked remarkably well overall but what was the effect on on company culture, creativity and collaboration?
Volume XXV, Issue 95 |

The long-run falling trend in working hours has stalled 

Working hours in in the UK were reduced dramatically from a Victorian era high up to the 1980s, remaining roughly consistent over the past four decades. In the early ’90s, the average was 38 hours per week, and in the 2020s, it is currently averaging around 36 actual hours worked by full-time workers. Those concerned about this plateau see the four-day week (4DW) as a potential antidote to a perceived long-hours culture. 

Many view 36 hours as a long working week, even though this actually equates to a little more than 20% of an individual’s weekly available time — a significant improvement on the life of the Victorian factory worker. Taking an entire society view and removing children, students, the retired, the unemployed, 5 million economically inactive people, vacations, lunch breaks and sick leave from the equation leaves roughly 9% of all hours actually being worked. When we observe how long, safe and interesting our lives are in comparison with the tedium, danger and misery of pre-market economies, it is quite astonishing that all of this is enabled by such a small percentage of hours. Perhaps those who talk of a ‘long-hours culture’ need to check their premise. 

The 4DW is increasingly proposed as a ‘solution’, but what does it ‘solve’? 

Recently, there has been a wave of 4DW trials. Some have been stopped politically — Lee Rowley, the UK local government minister, recently instructed Cambridgeshire County Council to stop its 4DW trial, saying “… removing up to 20% of … capacity … is not something which should be acceptable for a council seeking to demonstrate value for money for its taxpayers and residents”. But is he right? 

 “Work Less, Do More”, a new book on 4DW by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, the programme manager of 4 Day Week Global, addresses this issue in some detail. The book pulls together interviews with the leaders of many businesses involved in 4DW trials and presents a list of about 100 businesses that have trialled various forms of shorter weeks. The list itself makes interesting reading, with most companies included sharing three key qualities: they are small and medium enterprises where significant cultural changes are easier; almost all are still led by their founders; and many already trade on reputations for being creative. 

Those advocating the 4DW are mostly in favour of reducing hours without reducing pay. They take a pro-worker stance, claiming that there is strong evidence that the change benefits businesses through increased productivity. However, for 4DW to achieve these goals, 100% of output from 80% of hours is required, resulting in a 25% increase in productivity/output per hour. 

Productivity defined in this way is a very important driver of prosperity. Following decades of gradual improvement at 2%-3% p.a., productivity growth has been very low (below 1% p.a.) in major OECD countries, particularly in the UK, since the mid-2000s. This makes a 25% increase both very welcome and difficult to achieve. 

In our work assessing the 4DW for productivity gains, we have applied four careful criteria:  

  • Does the change involve reducing working hours rather than just consolidation say to four longer days? 

  • Has total output been at least maintained? 

  • Are the increases in productivity dependent on the 4DW, or do they derive from other changes made at the same time and which could be pursued anyway? 

  • Is the new model a special case or can it be adopted generally? 

Current trials fail to meet these criteria, casting doubt on the efficacy of the 4DW.  

When is a 4-day week a 4-day week? 

Many 4DW trials only involve a changed pattern of working, such as four 10-hour work days, or, as in the case of a restaurant, moving to 4DW by closing the restaurant every Sunday to Tuesday. These businesses are failing to increase productivity to anywhere near 25% because the hours they gave up were structurally less productive. Including them in the list of trials gives the impression of more widespread uptake and greater momentum for the change than actually exists.  

In one example, a manufacturer (interestingly, despite the weight of such businesses in the economy, the only UK manufacturer discussed at length in the book) was not shipping products on Fridays and so decided to cancel Friday work. They also moved to a four-day, nine-hour working week, meaning that hours were not reduced significantly. In this example, output was maintained, but only because Friday was already unproductive. 

In another example, the founder of a creative agency said, “When you’re delivering brilliant results, and they know you’re taking Wednesday afternoons off, they say, ‘It’s amazing! How do you do that?’” This sounds plausible in their line of work, but it is less so for police officers, insurance claims processors and a host of other job roles where presence and availability are important parts of the ‘product’. 

Creative businesses have found that it is possible to get the creative work done in fewer hours, plausibly using the idea of a fresh mind being more creatively productive. John Cleese’s excellent short book on creativity gives a strong explanation for how this works: creativity requires controlled circumstances such as periods without interruption and with your tools to hand, as well as the use of the subconscious by setting up the problem before bedtime and waking up with new ideas. The key insight is greater productivity not through shorter hours, but rather through smarter working methods. 

In many of the examples, employees were doing ‘personal admin’ tasks on their non-work Fridays. This begs the question: when were these personal admin tasks previously being done — all on Saturday mornings, or in paid breaks and quiet gaps during the working week? Is it an improvement to have this activity restricted to Fridays? 

What are we comparing the 4-day week to? 

Another set of winners in the 4DW trials is the start-ups that adapt their entire model to 4DW from the start and use it to attract and retain talented specialist staff. They have used shorter hours as a distinction because it is rare. This seems plausible, but, of course, it cannot be generalised — if everyone is doing it, these businesses can no longer differentiate and attract staff because of the 4DW they offer. 

Examples of fast growth after adopting 4DW are confounded, at least in significant part, by the enormous inherent momentum behind start-ups and the difficulty assessing how much growth has been due to, or may have been lost due to, the shorter hours. Start-ups working a traditionally structured five-day working week also grow very rapidly. 

Permanent reductions for temporary benefits 

It is also worth recollecting the ‘hedonic treadmill’,1 as described in our previous article. It is widely understood in psychology that our sense of well-being or mood can be strongly influenced in the short term by changes in the environment or situation. But in the long run, people have a strong tendency to return to their prior mood level, both after very major changes such as marriage or bereavement or following smaller changes like a new canteen or increased days of vacation. After a long day of hiking, it feels great to take your boots off. You feel better with your bare feet up on the sofa. That wears off. But the reward from the effort (the inspiration from the hilltop views, the fitness gained from hiking up and down hills) is embedded and lasts much longer. Surprisingly, this effect applies equally to major events such as promotions at work or much-increased wealth. 

The 4DW trials are not old enough or carefully enough monitored to isolate the effect of the hedonic treadmill. Are they still in the temporary phase of enjoyment? Are some of those businesses benefitting from the disciplined culture and efficiency gains that were deployed as part of reducing hours? And if these productivity gains are possible, what is the right ‘split’ of the benefits between employers and employees given each business’s objectives, e.g. public sector vs charity vs private for-profit institutions? 

How to achieve genuine success in reducing hours 

Overall, we would advise any business considering such a change to look at the following factors: 

  • Categories of work that could explicitly benefit 

  • Areas for productivity gains that require some effort and risk to change, that can be part of a deal with staff to move to 4DW 

  • Attraction and retention benefits in areas of skills shortage 

  • The impact on customers, business reputation and, where relevant, investors — and how to communicate this both internally and externally 

  • How far and how fast to go, taking into account the hedonic treadmill 

The jury is still out. 

The L.E.K. Consulting view 


“While many bang the gong for the concept of a reduced working week, how many accept the true impact of the four-day week on productivity and growth? Our analysis uses four key criteria to consistently measure efficacy and success and reveals many so-called success stories to be nothing but tall tales.”  

Andrew Allum, Partner


1Brickman, P. & Campbell, D.T. (1971). Hedonic relativism and planning the good society. In M.H. Appley (Ed.), Adaptation level theory: A symposium (pp. 287-302). New York: Academic Press

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