Could a four-day working week become a reality?

Would a shorter week translate into more intense working hours or the perfect work/life balance?

When Margaret Cox called her staff at ICE Group, a recruitment firm with its headquarters in Galway, to a team meeting in May 2019 and told them the news, she was met with stunned silence. “There was absolute silence in the room for about 90 seconds. Nobody said anything. I nearly cried,” she recalls.

“They thought it was a joke. We told people: same job, same productivity, same wages, four days a week. They thought it was a prank.”

Far from a prank, it was an idea Cox had been exploring since October 2018. She saw it as “an opportunity to change the lives of our employees and also because talent retention was an issue for us. I wanted to say, how can we become world class?”

And so, on July 1st, 2019, the entire workforce began working a four-day week, for the same pay as they’d been getting for five days. In the first year, something unexpected happened: sales went up by 29 per cent.


The new arrangement means a “bank holiday weekend every weekend for the same money”, but since staff at ICE work about nine hours on the other four days, the working week is only three hours shorter than it had been. “We’re working to reduce that more,” says Cox.

You don't cut out the chats entirely. But you don't stand for 20 minutes on the stairs chatting either

So how does it work in practice? Cox has implemented “four-day week behaviours”, including “if you’re going to a meeting, you have an agenda, you plan for what you’re going to do, you read the notes before you go in. Every meeting should take 30 minutes. There are none of these one-hour meetings dragging on.”

One part of the organisation gets Friday off; the other gets Monday off and they schedule time on Thursday and Friday evening for handovers, so that clients are never impacted. Productivity has improved, but what about company culture, and the chats around the kettle that there’s no longer time for?

“You don’t cut out the chats entirely. But you don’t stand for 20 minutes on the stairs” chatting either.

The challenges have included figuring out how to manage holidays, communication, and even small staff celebrations like birthday cakes. But, overall, they were dwarfed by the benefits. “I can only say it’s been a success because our sales have increased.” Staff are happier too.

Could other companies follow the same approach? An experiment is under way to find out. A campaign has been launched to encourage employers to join a six-month pilot programme of four-day weeks starting in January 2022. The experiment is being organised by the Four Day Week Ireland campaign, which includes representatives from trade union Fórsa, Ictu, National Women's Council, Friends of the Earth Ireland and academics.

Participating companies will be offered training, coaching, collaboration and access to academic research, says general secretary of Fórsa, Kevin Callinan. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications is funding a research partnership to assess its impact, with up to €150,000 in grants available.

Callinan believes the experiment shouldn’t involve organisations packing more work into fewer longer days. The model being promoted is 100-80-100, or “100 per cent productivity, 80 per cent time, 100 per cent pay”.

This is the right time to have this conversation. The pandemic has shown some of the possibilities

The benefits of the four-day week reported in international studies have included talent retention, higher employee satisfaction, lower sickness levels and higher productivity. A report by the UK campaigning group Autonomy in December 2020 found that a four-day week with no loss of pay would be affordable for most of the 50,000 businesses it surveyed, “through higher productivity or raising prices”.

Organisations are already dealing with a revolution in our working lives due to the pandemic, but Callinan believes that makes this the right time to have this conversation. “The pandemic has shown some of the possibilities. Yes, it may be uncomfortable for managers to have to manage these changes, including remote working and hybrid work. But once we keep the focus on productivity as part of the conversation, it can work for everyone.”

Speaking at the launch, Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Leo Varadkar, called the idea "ambitious" but said it was "too early to say whether a four-day working week could work in Ireland… I can see how that might work for some roles but it's hard to see how it would work in others, particularly in health, education and manufacturing, for example. But we need to keep an open mind when it comes to innovations in the world of work."

Peter Cosgrove, future of work expert and managing director of Futurewise, is broadly positive about the concept. However, he worries there is a risk of a “two-tier workforce” emerging, in which some jobs can be done over four days for no loss of pay, and others work in sectors which require a five-day week.

“There’s no doubt that there are some workplaces where it’s easier to make this adaptation or change than others. But you have to start somewhere,” says Callinan.

Does he do a four-day week himself? “Personally, it might be a bit late for me. I’m probably a bad example because I wouldn’t like to tell you the amount of hours I work,” Callinan laughs.

This highlights another of the problems with the idea of a four-day week, suggests Cosgrove, who says that not everyone is desperate to work fewer days. “Some of the assumption is that people are exhausted with work, but some of the people I know who work 80 hours a week absolutely love what they do. And they’re not exhausted, they’re not burnt out.”

He believes what employers should be offering is more flexibility – such as later starts, or the ability to take work home some afternoons. “This idea of people working a four-day work week is actually quite inflexible. If someone says, I no longer work Friday, it sounds great in practice, but the world moves five days a week. Someone has to do that work on a Friday. I just don’t see employers loving it.”

And while jobs that are project or deadline based might adapt quite well to more intense bouts of work across a shorter working week, there’s a limit to how productive you can be for prolonged periods, he suggests. “I don’t think you’re productive in 10-hour days. And even if it’s four eight-hour days, all you’re doing is making people work more intensely for those times.”

Maeve McElwee, director of employee relations at employers’ group Ibec, agrees that “if you have to maintain your level of productivity at the same level to do five days’ work in four, your days are inevitably going to be a little bit longer. People in some of the studies done before have come back and said, ‘I just find it too stressful. Working at that kind of pace every single day wasn’t for me.’”

While it will work for some companies, “there’s a lot of employers who might say, that’s just not going to be for us”.

I believe that our workforce actually wants much more nuanced flexible arrangements

She shares Cosgrove’s view that what we are witnessing is the emergence of more demand for flexibility, rather than a wholesale reimagining of the working week.

“An extra day [off] might be lovely, but they’re still going to be looking for flexibility across five days. You’ve still got to do drop-offs and pick-ups, people want to attend lectures, or avoid the worst of the commute time, and you still have people with elder care responsibilities. To combine all of that with a four-day working week really just becomes enormously complex,” she says.

There are some sectors, such as healthcare, which operate 365 days a year, and in which reducing everyone to a four-day week would mean hiring extra staff and could be prohibitively expensive, she adds. For all of these reasons, McElwee doesn’t see the four-day working week “becoming a widespread reality anytime soon, because I believe that our workforce actually wants much more nuanced flexible arrangements”.

They want arrangements that “are tailored to themselves and the demands of their own lives. And employers will respond to that.”

Does Cosgrove think the four-day working week is coming? “Employers are already considering lots of things post-Covid around flexible work and around hybrid work. This might be part of a bigger plan.”

Back in Galway, Cox is confident that the challenges – and there have been a few, she admits – have been outweighed by the benefits – a happier, more engaged and more productive workforce. “Every organisation should ask itself the question, how can we make this happen? And then they should try to make it happen. Because the benefits for your people, for the community we live in, for the climate and for your business, are absolutely too great to lose.”