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Four-day working week hailed as ‘overwhelming success’ across the world but should it be introduced in NI?

Trials of shorter hours for staff are taking place globally, and the proposal has its supporters and detractors here


Working: Staff in a busy office, but the pandemic has led to this being a less common sight. Credit: Monkeybusinessimages

Working: Staff in a busy office, but the pandemic has led to this being a less common sight. Credit: Monkeybusinessimages

Working: Staff in a busy office, but the pandemic has led to this being a less common sight. Credit: Monkeybusinessimages

Trials of a four-day working week around the world have been hailed “an overwhelming success” by some who found productivity remained the same or improved.

The model is being piloted in Spain, New Zealand and Japan, and recently Belfast City Council officials said they will consider the concept for staff, with no pay cut involved.

The topic has been deeply divisive, so will this model ever work here?

Some argue reduced working time is good for wellbeing, the environment and building a prosperous economy.

Others say it is not practical for some industries and sectors which can “easily be replaced by automated machines”.

Stephen Kelly, chief executive of Manufacturing NI, said a four-day working model “simply won’t work in a job where you rely on someone from your left to then pass on your workflow to someone on your right”.

The organisation represents all local manufacturing businesses, from construction, engineering and aerospace to food and clothing.

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He is concerned that instead of looking at working four days as an opportunity to hire more staff to cover the time, it could be disastrous for manufacturing, where roles could become automated.

“People could possibly be replaced by machines if that is the case, and that’s not what we want to see at all,” he said.

While flexible working hours can be successful in some sectors such as IT and office-based positions, Mr Kelly said it is “just not feasible when working on a production line” or if there are laws implicating your working hours.

“In construction, for example, there are laws around noise, where you are not allowed to work before 8am and after 9pm, so time is limited anyway,” he explained.

There is also a struggle to recruit employees in some sectors, which may mean trialling a four-day week could prove difficult.

“It’s almost like we’ve come out of Covid and everyone has disappeared,” said Mr Kelly.

“Businesses are doing everything they can to attract people back to work, but we’ve lost 18,000 EU nationals since 2016, all people who came here to work, so our labour pool is smaller, and throughout the pandemic many people have decided to rethink their careers.

“We are in a sticky place right now as a mixture of Covid and Brexit.”

One trade union said the introduction of a four-day working week on the wages of five days could make a huge difference to workers in all sectors of the economy, particularly hospitality.

Neil Moore, regional officer with Unite the Union, said wages must not be impacted if it is trialled here.

“There needs to be protections built-in for lower-paid workers. In particular, this move will be meaningless for those suffering the greatest exploitation if there is not action to end zero-hour contracts and ensure all contracts specify both minimum and maximum working hours in a week,” he said.

“Belfast can already boast a leading restaurant which has rolled out the four-day week among its workforce, and managed to secure Michelin stars in the process.”

A Co Down PR company used the pandemic to trial the four-day working week, which it admitted “has had its pros and cons”.

Riki Neil, founder of RNN Communications, moved her staff from a five- to a four-day week with no salary sacrifice just last year and said that it had increased the staff members’ “personal happiness” and had no impact on client delivery or results so far.

“A four-day week, however, isn’t for everyone, and at times it can be challenging, but this is where the flexibility from all team members comes in, as we all have different days off throughout the week,” she explained.

The benefits, she says, have hugely outweighed the challenges, which is why her team “is prepared to go the extra mile” and the four-day working week has remained in place for them.

Barry Smyth, owner and founder of MCS Group, a specialist recruitment service for professional people, the pandemic had created “an unprecedented shift” on working life across all sectors and that introducing a four-day working week into this environment could present “major challenges” to many organisations for a variety of reasons.

Many people have chosen to prioritise their work/life balance and, in doing so, according to Mr Smyth, are now seeing jobs as a “straightforward transaction between employer and employee”.

“Engagement levels aren’t what they were as a result and this is now driving some of the dramatic changes we are seeing in the job market, which people are calling the ‘great resignation’,” he said.

“Looking at the potential for a four-day model, it is clear that there are benefits to the employee, such as reduced burnout through improved work/life balance, and the piloted trials around the world unsurprisingly show that people are generally happier working less days.”

The employment expert said operational complexities come with a four-day week that businesses would have to get to grips with, and the model won’t work for some jobs.

“In hotels, for example, beds need changed and rooms need cleaned every day,” he pointed out.

“And the same goes in healthcare settings for nursing staff or other healthcare workers.

“The biggest challenge for employers trialling this is to ensure there is no disruption to services.”​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

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