‘How do you balance it?’: Businesses grapple with idea of four-day working week

Successful early trials are encouraging, but industry sceptics still argue it will be impossible to roll out across all sectors and companies

Among the more than 50 motions up for discussion at the annual Association of Higher Civil and Public Servants annual conference in Dublin today are a handful calling for the union’s new executive to commission research into the four-day working week and, separately, to support the existing campaign to promote the concept.

That campaign has been back in the news this past week as the organisation driving it here, Four Day Working Week Ireland, issued a call for businesses to enrol in its latest trial of the initiative. The idea is intended to allow people to receive 100 per cent of their pay for working 80 per cent of the time, in return for continuing to do 100 per cent of their previous workload.

To date, the results of what have generally been rather small-scale studies both here and abroad have been hugely positive, with upwards of 80 per cent of companies involved routinely saying they will stick with it long term and many of the others extending the trials.

Recruitment firm Ice Group’s Margaret Cox, who became a vocal advocate for the initiative after the company gave it a try, says there has been a 27 per cent increase in its staff’s productivity, greater levels of retention, fewer single-day absences and staff saying they are happier.


After a trial last year involving 12 Irish businesses with some 200 people, employers like Barry Prost of Rent a Recruiter and Sinéad Crowther of Dundalk-based manufacturer Soothing Solutions also hailed their own experiences as very positive. Cork-based accountancy firm MC2 recently said it was adopting it as its basic work model.

Multinationals like Toyota, Unilever and Microsoft have also conducted what have been reported to have been successful trials with groups of workers, and the governments of Spain and Scotland are among those set to back trials currently in the pipeline in those countries.

There’s no doubt it works really well in some organisations. But if you’re putting up your hand for it, you probably have that sense that it is something that’s going to work in your business

—  Maeve McElwee, director of employer relations at Ibec

Many in the business world remain sceptical, however, suggesting the self-selecting nature of the participants in such trials means that the companies involved already know they are in a position to make it work. The majority, they say, especially in sectors like healthcare and manufacturing, simply are not.

There have also been suggestions that the idea could ultimately give rise to a two-tier workforce in which some are permanently excluded from a benefit afforded to others and, worse, in some instances end up paying for it.

“I think it’s a great initiative,” says Maeve McElwee, director of employer relations at Ibec. “There’s no doubt it works really well in some organisations. But if you’re putting up your hand for it, you probably have that sense that it is something that’s going to work in your business.

“I think lots of businesses could learn from the ones that can successfully run it over a longer period of time, because they have probably invested quite a lot in that skill set of managing productivity at a high level, but I think the longer term will also tell us lots of really interesting things about how that works.”

Asked about the trials, McElwee raises questions about how the four-day week was defined and how successful a couple of them really were, but primarily focuses on the fact that they have all tended to be fairly short-term.

How might something that, she suggests, strips out the scope for a great many existing workplace flexibilities work in the longer term? “If you are reducing the number of hours but still getting the productivity then you have to work harder for the hours you are working. But human beings tend not to be consistent in that way. And our exterior lives tend to be even less consistent.

“So it’s very difficult to organise it that your school event is always going to be on a Friday, if that’s your four-day work week pattern. Kids are never conveniently sick when you’re not on one of your high productivity days.

“It’s very difficult to keep your productivity at that 100 per cent level and still drop eight hours out of your working week, week after week, month after month, year after year. And for some people, that’s a very stressful environment to work in. They don’t thrive in that; they actually thrive in an environment where there’s more time for conversation.”

That, though, is just to focus on working environments where it is ultimately a possibility. What about a big factory, a school or a hospital, McElwee asks? In the first instance, she suggests, productivity is a key issue: “European firms working a more expensive four-day workweek are never going to compete against China, Singapore or India, or any other emerging and growing economy, unless you’re all moving at the same pace.”

In respect of the other two, she argues, it doesn’t really enter the equation, because “you can’t use productivity to offset another hire in nursing or teaching because you can’t do more for a person today than you will need to do tomorrow”.

On the manufacturing front, John Teeling of Great Northern Distillery, a businessman with extensive experience of more than one sector, is similarly sceptical of the potential to change the landscape so fundamentally. He admits: “I suppose if you talked to me 60 years ago I would have told you that we could never break from a five and a half-day week, even a six-day one.

“But I honestly can’t see how it can work in manufacturing. We operate 24/7 and have people here on-site but the production process is largely machine-paced. This could only be accommodated, as far as I can see, at an additional cost to an employer.

“In terms of white-collar workers, it requires a big increase in productivity, but I’m not even sure how you measure the productivity of a white-collar worker. If you can cut hours by 20 per cent and still achieve the same level of productivity, I think that’s bound to raise questions about whether you were overmanned to start with.”

Declan Slattery, formerly head of talent acquisition at NatWest, and now head of the employer programme at Talint Partners, a British recruitment and retention think-tank, is similarly wary about the areas in which he believes the initiative can have a real impact.

“If you can cut hours by 20 per cent and still achieve the same level of productivity, I think that’s bound to raise questions about whether you were overmanned to start with.”

—  John Teeling of Great Northern Distillery

“The first thing is that the majority of people already work flexibly or part-time,” he says, pointing to the already declining length of the average working week across Europe, which Eurostat’s most recent figure for Ireland put at 35.4 hours in 2022. “So you’ve already got people who work in that space.

“The second thing, for larger organisations, is: how do you balance it? Do you just have a four-day work working week, which means that you only work Monday to Thursday and you close down on Friday? Or do people work four days across a five-day week? And what impact does that have on collaboration, networking, etc?

“For some businesses faced with losing 20 per cent productivity out of your week, you’re not necessarily going to replace that by squeezing it all into longer days because you still want people to work the same hours, right?”

Shifting candidate expectations, one of the topics to be explored at the group’s Dublin conference for talent acquisition leaders on May 11th, is clearly a factor in certain sectors, Slattery acknowledges, with recruitment and retention both big issues at present. But in other sectors, he too wonders how it might ever work.

“Am I going to close SuperValu down every Friday? If I’m working on dairy production, I’m not going to close down and not produce any milk on a Friday. So I think the principle is sound as an aspiration, but the real application across macroeconomy and macrobusiness is difficult to comprehend right now. Unless the whole world went Friday to Sunday as its new weekend.”

Kevin Donoghue, who is chairman of Four Day Week Ireland, believes the model can work in pretty much every area of the economy. But he is not expecting the transition he hopes to see happen quickly, or to be equally straightforward in every sector.

“Even within the same sector,” he says, “the four-day week looks different to different companies.

“I take the point that you’ll see certain sectors that find it easier to understand how it can be implemented compared to others. But it is possible to implement everywhere, I believe. I can see why people would find that difficult to imagine in some cases, I can see why they might not want it in other cases.

“But it’s like a lot of these things, it’s always very hard to do until it’s done. And then, six months later, you can’t imagine how you did it another way.

“If I was on the board of directors for a company, and their CEO couldn’t imagine a scenario in which a four-day week could work for their company, I’d be somewhat concerned about their creative capacity.”

Ultimately, though, Donoghue acknowledges that the process of gathering the evidence to make the case is continung, and that it will take more work if the proponents are to win over those who sceptical.

“I think we’ve cleared a space out where it’s very possible to demonstrate that it can work, but we do have a way to go to convince people that it works everywhere,” he says.

“The thing I point to is the number of companies that stay with it after the trials. It’s not an unfair thing to say there’s a degree of self-selection involved, that these companies wanted it, and so success is more likely. But at the end of the day, the vast majority of companies that have participated in these trials are companies that operate in order to generate a profit. So that will dictate the decisions that they make.

“If, after the trial, their decision is to maintain the four-day week, which it overwhelmingly is, I think that there’s more proof in that than any case you can make from an academic perspective. But I am of the view that it’s very important for the Irish and other national campaigns and global campaign to continue to build the evidence base.”