Who Needs Five Days? The UK Asks.

Politicians there are mulling a proposal to trim the workweek to four days, a debate that’s gaining steam across the globe.

While the United Kingdom continues to figure out how to depart from the European Union, a number of the country’s politicians are debating whether to break away from a far more ensconced institution: the five-day workweek.

The UK’s Labour Party is considering a proposal to trim the five-day week for public-sector workers down to four. That comes, of course, as the debate about the length of workweeks has crisscrossed other countries and organizations. While a four-day workweek is still not practical in many cases, proponents say more flexible schedules can spur greater productivity and engagement from employees.

“Many organizations are locked into this metal model of going to work from nine to five, Monday through Friday,” says Emma Cornwall, a London-based Korn Ferry associate client partner focused on central government. “What the four-day week offers is the recognition that our lives are more complex now with people trying to balance jobs, careers, and their caring responsibilities.”

The long-standing mindset of fixed hours in the office dates back to Victorian times, when factory work was the norm. Back then, being present at the workplace for regimented periods made sense to comply with the manufacturing processes. That standard spread throughout the world.

But a growing number of private firms are experimenting with more flexible schedules, whether by shortening the workweek, allowing employees to work remotely, or other ideas. For instance, last year a New Zealand insurer found that employee productivity rose 20% after it cut its workweek to four eight-hour days but paid workers for five days. Altered schedules may especially help so-called knowledge workers, for whom applying brainpower is more important than being present at a designated desk. “There is something about focusing the mind that helps in getting the job done,” says Cornwall. Put simply: when time is limited, things get done faster.

The UK’s civil service has already embraced many flexible work practices at all levels. These include job sharing (when two people hold one job), shorter hours, evening shifts, remote working, and positions that involve working only during the school term, all of which allow employees to get a better work-life balance. “Both male and female parents take it up; there is no stigma to doing this in the civil service,” Cornwall says.

While flexible work arrangements require employers to show significant trust in their employees, experts in favor of the change say there are benefits in improved worker output and enthusiasm. “Most enlightened companies realize that people can be trusted to work from home, and that increase in flexibility is seeing employee engagement go up,” says Peter Cave-Gibbs, Korn Ferry’s senior client partner for the global technology markets.

There are limits, of course, to shorter workweeks or remote working. After all, the traditional nine-to-five workday is needed at many firms—for example, environments where workers must match key production deadlines or find agreement among thousands. Plus, some entrepreneurs, particularly in tech, think employees should want to work longer hours across a six-day week.

Either way, experts say all firms that are considering a change in work schedules should make sure there are still opportunities for nurturing and training staff. Fewer people in the office could lead to fewer role models for junior employees to emulate. “You have to recognize that humans are gregarious and benefit from working together,” says Cave-Gibbs. “Many roles today, even the most technologically advanced ones, involve learning from others.”