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The four day working week: from pilot to decision makers

⌚ Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

David Frayne

Research Associate, University of Cambridge

Discussions around the viability of the ‘Four-Day Week’ have grown significantly in academic, business, and policy contexts. As part of his CAPE-funded project, ‘The shorter working week: from theory to reality’, Dr David Frayne worked to disseminate the results of the ‘UK Four-Day Week Pilot’ amongst decision makers from a range of political parties at the Welsh Senedd and Westminster as well as to the Trade Union Congress Wales. David’s work helped engender a debate on the four-day week in the Welsh Senedd and he presented the findings of the pilot in the House of Commons.

Below, David reflects on his experience as he moved from the theory of the four-day week to engaging decision makers on the issue.

‘Faster than the speed of thought’ Launching the results of the 2022 UK Four-Day Week Pilot

In 2015 I released a book called The Refusal of Work. The book covered political thinkers who argued for a future in which the sphere of necessary work would be drastically reduced, leading to abundant free-time for all. Through progressive changes in how societies conduct, organise and distribute their labours, the hope is that humans will eventually be free to pursue their own ends. For the thinker André Gorz, this means time to live the ‘multi-active’ life, in which necessary work plays only a small part. For the philosopher, James Chamberlain, it means having time to think, for it is only thinking that protects us from “the ever-present threat of unthinkingly conforming to tradition or the ends of others”.

While it was inspiring to be immersed in these visions of liberation, writing The Refusal of Work eventually required me to turn away from the comforts of utopia toward the more prosaic world of present-day politics. As the sociologist Erik Olin Wright argued, any inquiry on ‘where we want to be’ must also be anchored in the trickier question of ‘how we get there from here’. On this matter, I finished the book with a negative conclusion: outside a pledge to reduce working time in the UK Green Party manifesto, “there exists no movement that currently has the potential to develop a politics of time”.

Cut to eight years later, March 2023, and I am sitting in a grand, wood-panelled room inside the Houses of Parliament, wondering whether I have dressed too formally. Sat next to me is Caroline Lucas, the politician who pioneered the Green Party’s commitment to reducing working time. Also in attendance are numerous Labour politicians and policy organisations, along with the co-authors and fellow researchers responsible for delivering the UK’s 2022 pilot of the four-day working week – a research experiment in which 61 organisations tried a four-day week for six months, without reducing staff pay.

If there were few signs of an imminent public debate on working time in 2015, in 2023 this is no longer holding. Numerous pilot studies of the four-day week have now taken place, all generating a swirl of media attention. At the launch event in Westminster, I felt encouraged by the level of detail in the questions being asked. How did the four-day week impact productivity in the manufacturing businesses? Did the staff use their day off to rest or to do something civic-minded? What might it cost to translate the four-day week to the public sector? Several weeks later, I presented the research at a similar event in the Wales Senedd, where the questions were just as encouraging. What additional challenges and opportunities were introduced by the devolved context?

The 2022 UK four-day week pilot

No. of organisations: 61
Pilot duration: 6 months
Ground rules: Organisations should commit to a meaningful working time reduction without any loss in staff pay.
Evaluation: Numerous measures of staff well-being, company performance and time-use, combined with in-depth interviews with CEOs and staff.

No. of companies continuing with a four-day week: 56
Average level of staff satisfaction with the pilot: 8.3 / 10

This kind of relevance should be a researcher’s dream. Thanks to the work of the campaigners and communications teams circling the pilot, the level of engagement with the UK pilot has been overwhelming. But this has not been without problems. With the vast majority of companies in the pilot choosing to continue with their four-day week, some journalists were ready to proclaim the four-day week as the future. Others dismissed the pilot when it had barely even begun. 

From a researcher’s perspective, the engagement was moving faster than the speed of thought. As the requests and questions from journalists flooded in, my instinct was often to retreat and reflect. This is not because I take a non-partisan position on the matter of working hours. I have supported the cause of working time reduction for years. Time is life, and the most basic ingredient for autonomy. To me it is self-evident that we would want policies to ensure that everyone has a bigger and fairer share. But on the specific matter of the UK four-day week pilot, I am more reserved. While the findings and successes are remarkable, there are still hard questions to ask about the passage from pilot to policy.

Can we really rely on market competition to deliver the four-day week, as some advocates have suggested? What policies, investments and power struggles would be needed to make this work on a society-wide scale? How do we ensure that precarious workers and those in over-stretched areas like education and healthcare see the benefit? How should we respond to the small number of workers who didn’t like the four-day week, or to the manager who mainly saw an opportunity to discipline his workers? Is there potential to use the success of the four-day week as a platform to discuss more radical types of working-time reduction? An end to environmentally destructive industries, perhaps? Pairing the four-day week with a basic income?

Launching the findings of the UK four-day week pilot has been a remarkable journey. New partnerships between researchers and politicians have been forged, with state-led pilots in the UK looking highly likely in the near future. 

But I will say it again… I need some time to think.

David wishes to thank the UK pilot interview team as well as CAPE, whose funding allowed him to significantly expand his contribution to gathering and communicating the findings of the UK four-day week pilot. The pilot was established , and managed by Autonomy, who also published its findings in a public report in Feb 2022. More detailed academic analyses of the pilot, as well as a ‘one-year on’ study of pilot organisations are due to follow.