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The U.K. is undergoing the largest trial of a four-day workweek and less may be more


Since the beginning of June, the U.K. has been undergoing the biggest trial of a four-day workweek ever conducted. Seventy-three companies have cut their employees' working hours to 32 hours a week while still paying them their full salary. Paddy Hirsch and Wailin Wong from the Indicator podcast from Planet Money bring us an update on the latest experiment to shake up the workplace.

PADDY HIRSCH, BYLINE: Not surprisingly, the Brits that we spoke to in London love this idea.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Absolutely. Who wouldn't want a four-day workweek? Yeah, I would love one.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: To be honest, I'd totally support it. If, depending on the work and the role, you can get through your work in, like, four days, then completely fine.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: That would be lovely, definitely.

WAILIN WONG, BYLINE: The idea of going from a five-day workweek to four days is not a new one. In fact, people have been talking about going to four or even three days a week since we first went to five days. Charlotte Lockhart is the founder and CEO of 4 Day Week, the company behind the pilot program. She says the pandemic has given the idea of a four-day week an entirely new focus.

CHARLOTTE LOCKHART: There is a real conversation around how you engage with your people to find a better way of working. The opportunity we have here is to completely reframe the workplace.

WONG: The U.K. has recently become notorious for its poor productivity, with the second-lowest productivity growth rate in the G-7 group of wealthy nations.

HIRSCH: And it's this paradox that evangelists for the four-day workweek are aiming at. They say five eight-hour days are less productive than four for a variety of reasons. They lead to burnout. They encourage use of sick leave. They lead to increased turnover in jobs. They ignore the fact that most people in an eight-hour day are only productive about half of the time, if that.

LOCKHART: There is clear evidence around the world that if you reduce work time, you increase productivity.

HIRSCH: Productivity, the magic formula of doing more with less - and the data from a slew of studies supports the thesis that reducing work time can make people more productive. Studies in Japan and New Zealand and the U.K. and in Iceland found that working fewer hours also improves workers' health and well-being, reduces stress and burnout and ups the hours that people sleep, which, of course, makes everything better.

WONG: Not all of the data from the U.K. trial is out yet, but 86% of the companies in the program say they are likely to stick with a four-day week. That could go a long way to convincing other corporations, most of whom have one big problem with the idea. Esme Terry is a research fellow at the Digital Futures at Work Research Centre in the United Kingdom.

ESME TERRY: Paying 100% salary for 80% workload seems, to a lot of corporations, like, why on earth would we do that?

HIRSCH: Esme agrees with Charlotte Lockhart that working fewer hours at a stretch can make us more healthy and happy and, therefore, hopefully, more productive.

WONG: And she agrees that it's high time for a change. She just wants to think bigger.

TERRY: The eight-hour, five-day-week working time model is less than a hundred years old. And of course, it's a question of, well, are there more radical changes to working time that are possible?

HIRSCH: 4 Day Week CEO Charlotte Lockhart says she's all about making radical changes, too. Her U.K. trial is aimed at spurring companies to ask big questions that will hopefully generate some productive answers.

LOCKHART: Somebody has to be bold and say, I'm prepared to take the chance.

HIRSCH: For her, the four-day working week is just a place to start.

Paddy Hirsch.

WONG: Wailin Wong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Paddy Hirsch
Wailin Wong
Wailin Wong is a long-time business and economics journalist who's reported from a Chilean mountaintop, an embalming fluid factory and lots of places in between. She is a host of The Indicator from Planet Money. Previously, she launched and co-hosted two branded podcasts for a software company and covered tech and startups for the Chicago Tribune. Wailin started her career as a correspondent for Dow Jones Newswires in Buenos Aires. In her spare time, she plays violin in one of the oldest community orchestras in the U.S.