Back in the mid-to-late 1800s, a typical working week was a soul-crushing 70 hours. Most people worked around 12 hours a day 6 days a week and were only given Sunday off as it was a holy day.
That all changed in 1926, as Henry Ford realised that giving workers extra time off would boost morale and productivity. He implemented a working schedule at his car factories of Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm, with Saturday and Sunday off. The trend was globally adopted and has been used ever since, to what we now know as the standard work week.
In recent years, compressed hours have been making another change to working norms. Compressed hours are a form of flexible working that allow you to complete your standard 5-day 40-hour working week in 4 days (or a different arrangement), giving you a greater work-life balance.
Studies have shown that having shorter working weeks leads to greater job satisfaction and productivity (no matter how many hours worked in total). With compressed working hours, you'll still perform all your usual tasks, but with added flexibility. In theory, you’ll be able to reduce the stress that comes with the job and eliminate that dreaded Monday-to-Friday drag.
As stated by the World Economic Forum:
“The four-day week trials won near-unanimous approval from workers who took part, with 97% saying a four-day week should become permanent in their organisation.”
It’s now a statutory requirement by the British Government for employers to consider the request for flexible working by employees, but before you approach your boss about switching to compressed hours, consider how it might affect your lifestyle.
How do compressed hours work?
Instead of working the usual 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, you could fit the same 40 hours into four days instead of five. This gives you an extra day off and a longer weekend to get some much-needed R&R, pursue hobbies, do some volunteering, or spend time with your family and friends.
You could also break up your week by taking that extra day off on a Wednesday for a mid-week break or if you’re really brave, sandwich those 40 hours into 3 days of 13 hours and 20 minutes (not for the faint-hearted).
Compressed hours also extend beyond days, as you could opt to start work earlier and finish earlier or have a lie-in every now and then and start work later in the day; the choice is yours.
Types of compressed working patterns
There are multiple working patterns you could choose from:
- Four-day week: You work four 10-hour days, resulting in a three-day weekend.
- Three-day week: You work three days of 13 hours and 20 minutes, resulting in a four-day weekend.
- Fast start: You work 10 hours a day Monday-Wednesday and 5 hours Thursdays and Fridays.
- Slow start: You work 5 hours Mondays and Tuesdays and 10 hours Wednesday-Friday.
- 9-day fortnight: You work your allotted hours across a nine day fortnight, which could mean slightly longer days, but you get every other Friday off, for example.
- Early bird: You start work early and finish early.
- Night owl: You start work later in the day and finish later.
These types of flexible working give you the opportunity to choose how you organise your working days and manage your lifestyle.
Work to live – don't live to work.
Compressed hours vs 4-day work week
Compressed hours and the 4-day work week are two sides to the same coin of enhancing work-life balance and employee well-being.
Compressed hours involve condensing the standard 40-hour work week into fewer days and/or shift patterns, allowing employees to work longer hours for longer weekends and more days off.
On the other hand, the 4-day work week typically involves reducing the standard work week to a fixed four days and in some cases, reducing the usual number of work hours per day.
Both models are set up to improve work-life balance, reduce stress, and increase productivity.
For businesses, making a choice between compressed hours or a 4-day work week largely depends on the industry, job responsibilities, and the nature of the work itself.
What it means for your annual leave
Bear in mind that with compressed working hours, you’re still working the same amount of hours – just on longer days and shorter weeks. So you’re entitled to the same holidays as someone doing the standard week.
You’ll just have to shift your focus from days to hours when it comes to figuring out time off. For example, if a normal Monday to Friday 9-5 employee has a day off, technically they’re getting 8 hours off but if you’re doing 10-hour shifts four days a week, a normal day off would be 10 hours off.
So if we took the standard working week with 28 days of annual leave, all employees would have 224 hours of holiday per year. If one of your working days falls on a bank holiday, for example, your usual number of hours for that day will be deducted from your annual leave.
If you’re looking for a compressed hours calculator for your holiday entitlement, use our holiday calculator and select ‘hours’.
Pros and cons of compressed hours
When considering the big switch to a compressed work schedule, it's important to weigh the pros it can bring to your work-life balance against the cons.
Compressed work hours grant you the luxury of a three-day (sometimes four-day) weekend, enhancing your lifestyle.
You can relish having an additional day to spend on personal activities, childcare, or simply to rest. By working longer hours over fewer days, you don't just gain more consecutive free time, but you can also reduce the time and cost of your commute.
The pros of compressed hours:
- Gain an additional day off each week.
- Dedicate time to pursuits outside of work.
- Save on commuting expenses.
- Have extra time to rest and recover.
- Seeing your co-workers less!
However, longer days might lead to fatigue and require a high degree of self-management. You need to be prepared for longer hours of maintained focus, which can be demanding.
As you adjust, consider if the benefits of a compressed schedule align with your lifestyle, and if your commitments can accommodate the less frequent but extended workdays.
Cons of compressed hours:
- Managing fatigue during longer workdays.
- Balancing personal commitments with a demanding work schedule.
- Less time for after work leisure due to prolonged working hours.
- Struggling to stay in-sync with your customer or client’s schedule; not everyone is going to be on the same schedule as you.
- Seeing your co-workers less.
Bernardo Castro, founder of email signature software Bybrand, allows his staff to request compressed hours through their internal time management platform.
"The main benefit of compressed hours is that workers can effectively crunch to meet a deadline and get ample time off. They thrive when there are tight deadlines. But it is not compatible for all employees.
For example, our HR staff benefits more from a 5-day work week because they need to be available.
So, the downside is that you can't implement the hour changes company wide. This could lead to a disconnect between teams. I haven't seen this yet, but it is a possibility."
Which brings up an important concept: different types of work benefit from different shift patterns. Creative work like software development might benefit from stacked focus periods ("crunch") while management or administrative often works better with stable weekly hours.
Not every company can cater for both types, but if it's doable, it might really be worth doing.
The legal stuff
Flexible working options such as compressed hours can be brilliant, but you do need to be mindful about how you implement them. There's a few legal bits that you need to keep in mind.
Flexible working requests
Your journey to adopting compressed hours begins with a formal request. You, as an employee, are entitled to request flexible working arrangements after 6 and a half months (26 weeks) of work with the same employer.
The request should include the details of your proposed working pattern and the potential impact on your employer. Remember, by law, your employer must deal with flexible working requests in a 'reasonable manner' - this could mean arranging a meeting to discuss your request or giving you a clear explanation if your request is refused.
The legal landscape for compressed hours in the UK balances your rights with your employer's needs. Under employment law, your employer is not obliged to grant every request for compressed hours, but they do have to provide you with a legitimate business reason if they refuse.
These reasons could include extra costs that will damage the business or the work can’t be reorganised among other staff. For example, you work as an IT technical support officer but can’t change your working hours as you need to be available during the work hours of the rest of the office.
It’s all about coming to a balance that protects both your interests and those of your employer.
Potential effects on your business
When looking at a compressed work week, you should consider how it impacts both employee retention and the daily operations within a business. Small changes in work patterns can have a profound effect on the business, so you should probably give it some careful thought.
Enhancing employee retention
Implementing a compressed work schedule can lead to better job satisfaction, as you compress full-time hours into fewer days. Your employees benefit from an extra day off, often translating to enhanced work-life balance and in turn, leads to greater morale and a boost in productivity. Imagine how active someone would be after 3 and a half days of rest.
As Business and Trade Minister of The UK Kevin Hollinrake put it:
“Not only does flexible working help individuals fit work alongside other commitments – whether it’s the school drop off, studying or caring for vulnerable friends and family – it’s good business sense too, helping firms to attract more talent, increase retention and improve workforce diversity”.
Will it suit the business?
It’s all on a case-by-case basis; some businesses are very customer-focused and need to stick to the preferred hours of their customers; while other businesses operate towards deadlines and projects. It’s always worth spending some time to consider whether a business or specific job roles can accommodate this way of working.
In short, it really comes down to your customer.
Impact on other employees
As you introduce compressed work schedules, your business operations might see shifts in staffing requirements. The need to cover 10-hour days may require staggered shifts or job sharing to maintain full coverage, especially in customer-facing roles.
It could take a bit of time to organise the working times of your employees, but a compressed work schedule lets your business be open for longer hours.
Offering a choice of compressed hours or the traditional five-day week is a nice way of satisfying personal preference. But it's also a chance to reimagine how we integrate work into our lives. It's a reflection of a changing society that values mental well-being and personal time as much as professional achievement.
But there's also practicalities to consider. Many businesses will face challenges in adopting these new working patterns, and like any new staff initiative, they won't be able to keep everyone happy.
That said, despite the potential for adding complexity to your operations, compressed hours can potentially make your staff happier, healthier and more satisfied at work. Surely it's worth trying out?