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Let’s talk about flex, baby – is time up for the 40-hour week?

4 mins  |  19.03.2024

In 2026, the 40-hour workweek is hitting the big 1-0-0. Yet, as Henry Ford’s creation becomes a centenarian, it’s unlikely to get much of a birthday party. We threw out our typewriters and fax machines long ago, so why have we clung onto this concept? For many, the 40-hour week is something of a telegram, in a Twitter (X?) world. 

But the winds of change are blowing. 

Employers are opening their minds. After a 2022 UK pilot of a four-day week, 92% of participating companies ditched the five-day week for good. And, scrapping the Monday-Friday isn’t an automatic default to a four-day week – it can be far more flexible. 

100/80/100 is the accepted ratio: 100% of the pay, for 80% of the time, at 100% of original productivity. It’s about finding 20% of your week where you aren't being productive, and using it as personal time. 

With the advent of AI and remote work, the game is changing for white-collar workers. Many can now compress the traditional 40-hour week into a shorter, more efficient timeslot. Very few people are operating at 100% productivity throughout the week – in fact, some workers are spending less than three hours a day on impactful work. With a shift to an output-based workday, a shorter workweek is a real possibility.

So, is it time we courted the idea of a shorter week? Who’s gone down this route before? And is it the work-life paradise it would seem?

What's the big idea?

As technology has advanced in the last century, we’ve naturally become more productive. But this means our brains are being asked to process a lot more in our 40-hour week compared to previous generations, leading to more burnout, stress, and a general sense of gloominess. Deloitte believes that mental health issues cost UK employers £45 billion annually.

Enough to buy everyone in the UK an Apple watch. For each wrist. Every year.

It’s no secret – people are more productive if they aren’t overworked. In 2022, the three most productive countries globally all had an average workweek of 40 hours, or less. And, you guessed it – the countries working the most were some of the least productive. 

It all relies on flexibility. 55% of employees are high performers when they’re given radical flexibility over their work, compared to just 36% of those working 9-5 in an office. And, when you give your people more time for personal pursuits, creativity and purpose within the workplace tend to increase.

This radical flexibility is exactly what the 100/80/100 model aims to provide. But it’s not limited to just creativity and purpose – pilot results saw a 71% reduction in burnout, increased company revenue, improved mental and physical wellbeing, and male employees spending 27% more time on childcare. This was double the increase seen in female employees, suggesting that it could translate into a reduction in gender disparity in the workplace. 

For Cooper Parry, a mid-tier audit firm, it’s been transformative. They’ve seen internal wellbeing, and headcount, skyrocket – they’ve grown by 22% in the past year, taking most of their talent from Deloitte. Top-tier talent in the Big 4 have made the move to Cooper Parry, with wellbeing seemingly in mind. 

Is it all sunshine and rainbows?

It could be. If you’re in the tertiary sector. And you have strong management practices in place. And you can afford it. 

There are plenty of reasons why 100/80/100 might not be your golden ticket to boundless joy and productivity. If you have to hire more people to make it a viable model, it’s probably not for you. If the nature of your industry means work can’t be based on output and productivity, like postmen, it’ll be a struggle. And, if you work on the production line at Ford, it could be a tough ask. 

You also shouldn’t launch into a shorter workweek wholeheartedly – if it doesn’t work for you, it might be costly. Employees working at 80% capacity for 100% pay will expect a pay rise to go back to 100% capacity. Pilot schemes are your friend here. 

Work will naturally shift to be output based. Without robust time management, it could cause a focus on urgent work, and neglect of longer term projects and goals. If you don’t assign time for it, there’ll be less collaboration – potentially impacting teamwork. 

But, if you can get past these hurdles, a shorter workweek is feasible. And there's a serious appetite for it: 66% of Americans would prefer a four-day week, even if it meant working longer hours to make up for the missed day.

Will your culture take a hit?

Let’s address the elephant in the room. Company culture. What if everything changes? What if it’s too flexible? What if people are too energised? 

In all seriousness, company culture shouldn’t be a concern. The idea of a shorter week is to take the flattest, dreariest hours from each day, and bin them. The warm-eyed, slow-moving hour after a particularly big lunch on a Tuesday. A relic of the past. The hazy, yawning gap between your morning coffee, and actually waking up. A distant memory. The moments where your culture isn’t culturing. Sent packing. 

If your people are better rested, better motivated and better cared for, your culture will bloom. 

When you value their time, your employees are more likely to be present in person, and engage fully with your company’s mission and culture. And to top it off, the pilot also saw average commutes dropping from 3.5 hours to 2.6 hours weekly, so you’ll be doing your bit for Mother Earth.

So is it too good to be true? 

Perhaps – there’s always a chance. But the pilot data is significant: employees want change, and a shorter workweek could be the answer. This isn’t a one size fits all approach – it’s a commitment to flexibility, rather than a commitment to work less. As our Wisdom data shows, work-life balance & flexibility are at the top of the wishlist for UK talent – and this is a surefire way to meet those priorities.

Change could be around the corner

Is Henry Ford’s 40-hour week doomed to perish before its 100th birthday? Probably not. Don’t fret, 40-hour workweek fans, the congratulatory letter from King Charlie will still be in the post. Delivered by the very same postman whose workweek is unlikely to change any time soon.  

But that’s not to say that the big wheels of change aren’t turning. The world of work is evolving with each milestone it surpasses. As AI leads to the automation of menial tasks, the 40-hour week as we know it will become shorter. Key barriers to productivity – burnout, human error, manual/repetitive work – will become nearly obsolete, opening the door for drivers of business success: ingenuity, creativity, and passion. All distinctly human, all impossible to replace with AI models. 

So, it might be time to embrace change – but there’s no rush. Chances are, you’ll find productivity improving as we approach the centenary of the 40-hour week. Just make sure you’re valuing the time, and distinctly human input, of your people. If their workweek isn’t taking 40 hours, consider giving that time back – your culture, and people, might just thank you. 

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