Here's an offer not many employees would refuse: reduce your 35-hour week to 28 hours, with no drop in pay. That's the idea of the 'four-day week', and it's one that's gaining momentum in many countries, including Scotland. 

The Scottish government has indicated that it will establish a £10 million pilot to help companies explore the benefits and costs.

A mandatory four-day week?

As to whether a maximum four-day week could become mandatory any time soon, it seems unlikely. 

At present, the UK, rather than the Scottish, government holds the power to set a maximum limit on weekly working hours. 

There has been a 48-hour limit on average weekly hours in the UK since 1998, but employees can 'opt out' of this limit, and many do. It is difficult to envisage the current UK government having much appetite to remove the opt-out or reduce the 48-hour limit, never mind legislate for anything like a 28-hour limit.

So, for the foreseeable future, it will be for employers to decide whether they want to go down this road, albeit perhaps in the face of some pressure from unions, and the need to compete with other organisations in attracting talent.

The pros?

Oft-cited benefits for employers include increased productivity and staff retention; and reduced sickness absence. 

Covid-19 has of course brought into question many of our pre-pandemic norms, not least working patterns. Perhaps a four-day week is the next step down the road towards more flexible working and a better work-life balance. 

Protagonists argue that it could reduce unemployment and help mitigate the economic impacts of the last 18 months, and potentially even transform the health of the nation.

Particularly with COP26 on the horizon, suggestions that a reduced working week could bring environmental benefits, via reduced commuting and use of buildings and technology, are also important.

The difficulties?

Sceptics, on the other hand, may be unconvinced about the productivity gains, and question whether a four-day week could work in reality across all sectors, including for example retail and teaching. Shift workers, and those working for example two weeks on / three weeks off, don’t slot easily into the four-day week model.

Employers with minimum staffing requirements (perhaps for health and safety, or to service customer demand) would need to employ additional staff to plug the gaps.  

And don't forget about those who already work part-time. If you move full-time staff to a four-day week, with no reduction in pay, but do nothing for part-time workers, the latter will find themselves earning significantly less per hour than their 'full-time' counterparts. Part-time workers have the right not to be treated less favourably than comparable full-time workers, unless you can justify it. Part-time workers are also more likely to be female, raising the risk of sex discrimination claims if they are treated less favourably.

If you are designing a scheme, even on a trial basis, to ensure fairness for part-time workers and those with 'non-standard' working patterns, it is likely to be more appropriate to focus on a percentage reduction in hours across the board, rather than the headline 'four-day week'.

Implementing a change

It's not always easy to get employees' agreement to a change in their terms and conditions. Usually, you need to think about consultation, and in some cases you may even need to dismiss and re-engage employees to implement a change. 

But, if you're moving to a shorter working week and protecting pay, chances are your employees will be lining up to jump on board.

This article first appeared in Aberdeen & Grampian Chamber of Commerce Business Bulletin for October 2021.


Kathleen Morrison

Practice Development Lawyer