Asda has a management problem. But is the solution to cut the working week of store managers down to four days? 

According to reports in the Sunday Telegraph over the weekend, the supermarket’s owners Mohsin and Zuber Issa believe it is.

Asda has strongly denied staff dissatisfaction was fuelling unsustainable levels of managers to “leave in their droves”. But the supermarket has confirmed it’s been experimenting with various flexible working initiatives.

This included a small 20-store trial of a “four-day working week for the same pay and benefits”.

The myth of the four-day work week

The concept of a permanently shortened working week is nothing new, but it’s regained traction from campaign groups and unions in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic as a tincture to soaring levels of burnout among workers in various sectors.

There’s a myth commonly peddled by dismissive Wall Street bankers or hustle culture CEOs that a four-day week is nothing more than a way for work-shy employees to down tools on Fridays.

But the term is a misnomer, a catch-all phrase for a wider shortening of the amount of time people spend at work, rather than their output. This could be through condensing their hours into fewer days. Or ideally, as many proponents would argue, by improving productivity through the use of technology and even by culling – or shortening – ‘pointless’ parts of the workday like meetings.

Evidence from national trials in Iceland (the country) and from a six-month UK-based trial run in 2022 by academics from Oxford and Cambridge, along with the Autonomy – a campaign group founded by former Labour spads – suggest that when companies get it right, reduced working weeks can result in happier, and crucially more engaged, employees.

It also more often than not had knock-on benefits for an employee’s work-life balance and wellbeing.

It’s for those reasons the concept has started to gain considerable traction at a political level too. In Scotland for example, the SNP-run government has set aside what could be up to £10m to fund trials of the four-day week. The first of which was given the go-ahead by new-ish first minister Humza Yousaf in September.

In May 2023, the Welsh Senedd also debated the potential merits of starting its own trial among public sector workers, after a petition calling for a Welsh trial received backing from the body’s Petitions Committee. Any plans to progress are currently on hold while Welsh Labour looks for a replacement to first minister Mark Drakeford, who will step down in March.

Working hour creativity needed on shopfloor

Asda is also not the first grocer to give weight to the concept.

In January 2023, Marks & Spencer rolled out a flexible working policy that gave store managers greater choice over their chosen working hours, including the option to compress hours into a four-day week.

A month later, Sainsbury’s introduced a new ‘Smarter Working’ policy that included the option for head office employees, warehouse workers and store managers to spread shorter working hours across a seven-day week.

Morrisons also introduced the option of a four-day working week for some staffers four years ago, and is now considering the introduction of a new flexible working scheme at its Bradford HQ. The shake-up - which was revealed exclusively by The Grocer following the news of Asda’s trial - will see staff move to a four and a half day week, and includes the removal of a requirement for Saturday working. 

However, what’s significant about Asda’s trial is it appears to focus predominantly on store-based roles, without the need to cut pay or compress hours – which would make it a first among major supermarkets.

That model is likely to gain support from campaigners like Autonomy, which advocates for what it calls an 80-100-100 model, whereby employees work 80% of their hours, for 100% of the pay, while retaining 100% of their productivity.

It’s in stores, and in warehouse roles, that supermarkets and food and drink companies are arguably most in need of creative solutions.

There is no definitive tracker of the general sentiment among retail workers. But going by GroceryAid’s latest annual report – which cited a 13% increase in the number of calls to its 24/7 helpline last year – creating a policy that extends to hourly workers across all areas of a supermarket business would be truly revolutionary.

The not insignificant challenge of logistics and recruitment aside, the payoff for supermarkets is that they’d benefit from the efficiency savings, as well as good PR – in theory.

Asda has not released additional details on how the trial has progressed, or whether it will be rolled out more widely. Given a year of squeezed margins, high inflation, continued union action and “record” levels of crime in some areas of the sector, it’s unlikely to be alone among retailers in seeing some staff tensions.

If the policy works, and crucially, can be implemented effectively across its estate as part of an understanding company culture, and wider programme of benefits, pay and perks, others could follow.