Flexible Working and the 4-day week

“Whoever invented the 5-day week and 2-day weekend obviously didn’t have family, interests, hobbies, work life balance or a sense of perspective when considering productivity and achievement.”

Perhaps this is still what some believe?

“It is high time to rid ourselves of the notion that leisure for workmen is either ‘lost time’ or a class privilege.” – Henry Ford

“Time is an equal opportunity employer. Each human being has exactly the same number of hours and minutes every day. Rich people can’t buy more hours. Scientists can’t invent new minutes. And you can’t save time to spend it on another day. Even so, time is amazingly fair and forgiving. No matter how much time you’ve wasted in the past, you still have an entire tomorrow.” – Denis Waitley

Getting the balance right and providing light and shade across our day-to-day living is key to mapping the future of the work schedule and what that looks like.

The spectrum of how people like to work and how they can work is wide.  Often worker’s needs change and adapt over time according to the outside influences in their life at any one moment. What works as a framework at 24 years old will likely differ from the construct of a working day in later decades, whether commitments, responsibilities, expectations, objectives and vision have changed or not.

Experience, work culture, responsibilities and trends all impact the normalisation of what work looks like and the hours we dedicate to it.

Commitment to work and enjoyment are directly linked. How many workers facing conflict, disagreement, long hours, poor working conditions and inadequate rewards are likely to sustain a long-term dedication to delivering the right level of output that benefits the employer and the employee?

How many employees are truly able to work according to their personal rhythm? When does a “morning lark” work well late at night and continue to deliver successfully if their body clock dictates that they should, as a rule be tucked up in bed? Do employees really know what works for them – have employees ever been given the opportunity to explore their “best” methods and optimal time for working – do they even understand themselves?

Like so many things in life – the working week has become conditional, and “norms” are accepted without any challenge or thought. The hours dedicated to sleep, work and play should be considered and reviewed on a regular basis – what is the optimum mix? Research on all aspects is broad, detailed and regularly circulated, but how often do we take a step back and review what it right for the moment and what is right for me as an individual?

Mothers with small young children, men with caring responsibilities, singles with empty homes and no support, young adults with income worries and career path anxiety – how can a standard working pattern work the same for all these different types of people and the scenarios that they live within? Distance from work, method of travel, job type, physical and mental requirements all have a variable impact on the day-to-day measure of stress and associated output. There is no magic formula to maximise output and productivity, as everyone has a different mix of inputs and outputs, ambitions and requirements.

Campaigners for shorter working weeks argue that the four-day week could be a way of accommodating the variety of needs, whilst enabling the redistribution of work. It has been used in the past as a way to reduce unemployment, for example during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, but the idea has been gaining more relevance in recent years and is fast becoming a global trend. Since the start of the pandemic for instance, certain sectors within Spain have been working on a national shift to a 4 day or 32-hour week – but this does not suit everyone.

So what does reducing working hours require?

Cutting hours requires considerable effort: recalibrating incentives, redesigning jobs, management structures and measuring performance. Meetings have to be dealt with ruthlessly, and so do tools of distraction such as social media. It also demands trial and error — should hours be spread over five days, or four? Does everyone have the same work patterns?

Smaller organisations will possibly find it easier to implement and may have a greater incentive to try. Meanwhile, some larger UK businesses have started experimenting and regardless of the implementation headaches, the main benefits of a shorter week in these progressive organisations have found that reducing hours has contributed to:

  • Improved ability to attract and retain talent when employees are making comparisons with other employers
  • Increased overall employee satisfaction
  • Lower levels of employee absence and sickness reported
  • Increasing productivity for the hours actually spent working

On the other hand, businesses that are (for example) customer services heavy may find the reduction in staff availability on certain days problematic.

In short, if reducing hours has a chance of working then the key is to take it step by step and follow a plan checking that engagement and success is achieved at each and every stage. Perhaps trial the new arrangement in discreet parts of the business over a defined period of time, review the outcomes and consider if the test has worked. Meanwhile make sure the managers are on board and supportive of the idea. Talk to the employees and gather their opinions – listen to the concerns and worries and communicate about the practicalities of the idea.

Of course, other flexible options may be more appropriate depending on the circumstances, so carefully consider the alternatives such as working from home, job sharing or part time hours.  Whichever solutions are selected, its imperative to remember that colleagues want and need interaction with other colleagues and replicating these opportunities is crucial. Informal conversations are important and necessary to facilitate the community “chat” and dialogue that employees exchange. Finding ways to replicate these “corridor” conversations is an ongoing challenge and the impromptu and spontaneous interactions employees are used too may diminish and change if colleagues are together less.

Key questions to consider

The key questions are: 

  1. Are shorter hours ever going to be practical and affordable?
  2. How many people really have the same verve and commitment on a Friday afternoon versus a Monday morning?
  3. What does the future look like in your mind and in your future workplace?

If this is sounding like an option you are looking to explore, talk to us. Unlike other consultancies, our team have all had real-world experience solving the challenges you’re facing – meaning that we’re ideally placed to offer advice and lend a hand if you need it. For more information, head over to the organisational change and HR services section of our website – or give us a call on +44 (0)1491 414 010.

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