One thing that we can agree on in the wake of the pandemic is the need for change in the way we work. Recently, there has been discussion about whether a 4 day work week is the solution. In some countries, it has already been trialled, with those encouraging the overhaul citing benefits such as improved productivity, better work life balance and greater opportunity to more sustainable careers. However, lopping a day off the work week is not as simple as it sounds, nor is it necessarily enough to make the change a success. Without a fundamental revision of how we value productivity, existing ways of doing business, and careful consideration as to how we can support employees, it could simply mean that we’re doing the same in less time, creating more stress, less productivity, and generally negative outcomes.
Why a 4 day work week?
The 4 day work week involves reducing the hours worked by employees by one day, while keeping salary and entitlements consistent with the existing 5 day work week. The premise is that flexible or shorter working hours can actually improve productivity. After dealing with the pandemic for in excess of 2 years, workers are exhausted. Many are disillusioned, with some looking toward the ‘anti-work’ movement (a.k.a. the great resignation) as the solution to their burnout. Others have become used to the new freedoms and autonomy ‘forced’ upon them during COVID and seek continued work life balance. Mental wellbeing, especially during the pandemic has also risen to importance recently and better work-life balance is increasingly valued by employees.
Rather than quitting altogether, the 4 day work week looks to get workers back on side with a gradual reduction in time spent at work. Trials of the 4 day work week originated in Iceland between 2015-2019 and comprised a reduction in work time by merely 3-4 hours per week for the same conditions, which was hailed as a roaring success. In the wake of the pandemic, the 4 day work week has seen a resurgence. From January 2022, a 6 month pilot program is being deployed across 30 UK businesses, as well as in Ireland. Trials have also recently taken place in Japan, New Zealand, and Spain. It is important to note that the purpose of the change is to maintain or in fact increase productivity at the same time as reducing work hours by being more efficient at work.
There are already a number of large UK organisations who have implemented the 4 day work week as a permanent part of their organisation.
We eagerly await the results of these trials to glean insights as to whether it does improve work life balance or if employees feel the pressure to do more work in less time.
A new mindset
The pandemic has gone some way in accelerating changes in deep-set attitudes we hold about work. This was possible not only because our forced adaptation to a new isolated environment, but because almost every member of the workforce, including managerial staff, was forced to work remotely or ‘flexibly’. A similarly widespread voluntary initiative is unlikely to have had such an uptake and may not have captured the same cross-section of roles and senior positions.
This enlightenment and openness to change should not be wasted by simply returning to pre-pandemic routines. More than being a possible solution, the 4 day work week is a signal that it is time to think deeply about what we value at work and in life more generally and how we measure productivity.
Pre-pandemic thinking was characterised by attendance and being physically present at work. Working longer hours than your colleagues was worn as a badge of honour, even if little or less productive work was being accomplished during that time – the appearance of attendance was just as good. This is where businesses need to reflect on how they define value and productivity. If we continue to measure productivity in attendance, then a 4 day work week will likely change very little. Employees may feel guilty about working less if workplace attitudes don’t change and the 4 day work week will bleed back into five days.
“There is no reason people can’t work less hours and be equally — if not more — effective.” – Richard Branson.
Is the 4 day work week a one-size fits all approach?
If business is really serious about work-life balance, improved productivity, employee engagement and efficiencies, then it needs to consider if the 4 day work week is the best way to achieve these outcomes, or whether there are better ways of achieving this, such as bespoke flexibility agreements with employees.
In principle, the 4 day work week is a standardised model that provides for the uniform implementation of better work-life balance, which may prove to be less onerous than accounting for multiple individual flexible working arrangements – a framework which places emphasis on the individual to take ownership of their arrangements and may subject individuals who exercise these rights to flexibility stigma. Flexibility stigma refers to the notion that, where individuals choose to work flexibly, this means they ultimately contributes less to the business. Whether this view is held by colleagues or by management, it can lead to penalisation of employees.
A 4 day work week forces everyone into the same day off rather than relying on individuals to ask for and perhaps feel guilty about not working on days that others do. If this is to be a success, it will also be important to keep proper boundaries around this new time away from work to preserve improvements to work life balance and so that employees don’t feel pressured to continue to work despite that change.
Conversely, a one-size-fits-all approach may be unsuitable by nature of its rigidity and assumes that an extra day off is equally valuable to all employees. This dismisses the customisation otherwise provided through individual flexibility agreements, which acknowledges the nuances of employee’s individual needs, such as carer responsibilities and childcare duties that predominantly affect women.
Supporting the implementation of the 4 day work week
If businesses do make the move to a 4 day work week, then they’ll need to make other changes. Teams will need to work together to ensure that inefficiencies are better managed so that employees can work at full capacity to take advantage of the reduced time they are at work. Failing this, employees may incur more stress to complete the same amount of work in less time. If done right, employees may feel more refreshed and rested and in turn be motivated to be more productive and less likely to waste time at work trying to ‘claw back’ recovery time.
Sticking with the concept that productivity is achieved by working longer hours is outdated. Instead, let’s use this opportunity to help teams work better. It is tempting to hail the 4 day work week as the panacea to the discontent of the workforce and rush to adopt it in our own workplaces – but will the attraction of another day off cost us an opportunity to truly re-evaluate how we measure value and productivity at work?
We have experience helping employers successfully implement flexible, remote and other work arrangements with their staff, as well as carefully documenting such arrangements. Whether you are thinking of implementing a 4 day work week in your business or something else to improve productivity and work life balance, we can guide you through the options which exist, and properly consolidate these arrangements.
If you wish to discuss any aspect of this client alert or require specialist advice or assistance in relation to any employment law matter, please do not hesitate to contact us.
This alert is not intended to constitute, and should not be treated as, legal advice.