For those that can remember pre-pandemic times, there was an ongoing debate about a switch to a four-day week, which was proposed as a solution to prevent burnout and stress, leading inevitably to a happier workforce. The pandemic fundamentally changed the way in which most of us now work, with many working entirely from home; some working on a hybrid basis; and a few intrepid spirits holding down their UK based job whilst living abroad. The world of work has never been so confused or confusing.
In addition, there is an ongoing battle to secure and retain the most talented individuals to help business thrive. Recruiters are constantly seeking to encourage individuals to jump ship and move. The decision to move is rarely about just pay, fundamentally most employees like working with people they know and trust. Change is an opportunity for new success or potential failure.
The Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Act 2023
The Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Act 2023, when in force, will continue to shift the balance of power towards a more flexible working week, allowing two applications a year and cutting down the time within which a decision must be reached from three months to two and requiring the employer and employee to consult, if the employer is proposing to refuse the application.
Four-day working week trial
A study earlier this year reported that after a six-month trial of the four-day working week, 56 of 61 company participants in the trial decided to make the switch to a four-day working week permanent, with employees working fewer hours but with no loss in pay. Some may argue that those participating in a trial would work hard to ensure its success, in the hope of working less whilst still being paid the same.
That might be an inevitable consequence of a trial, but empirical evidence also suggests that mothers who have reduced working hours achieve more in those hours than those who are working a normal week. There are probably many factors behind that, a desire not to fail, to get back to the children to spend more time with them and the knowledge that many may be waiting for you to fail, are all possible explanations for that phenomenon.
We also know that the UK has some of the longest working hours in Europe, but that productivity is lower. When the working day / week stretches out interminably before an employee, the work can be made to stretch to fill the gap. The challenge obviously comes with those for whom the working week is already too short, where they are suffering work related stress, compressing the working week for these employees may be a step too far. Employers considering reducing the working week will need to ensure that employees are properly and adequately supported.
Implementing a four-day working week
Those considering a four-day week will need to consider how it will provide adequate cover for clients and customers. Professionals providing a service to their clients will need to ensure that if clients need advice they can receive it, in a timely manner. Businesses can and do have the flexibility to work to a different pattern, some have successfully worked a 9-day fortnight with every other Friday a day off.
Those who oppose such practices will doubtless point to the reports in South Cambridgeshire who have been trialling a four-day week, pointing to empty offices and failures in service delivery. Planning is key.
It will also be essential if the working week is being restructured that there is time given for the water cooler moments of inspiration and ensuring that the office culture is maintained/evolved. If the four-day week leads to the creation of an army of automatons who lack the time and space to think creatively to help drive a business forward or who are simply stifled by having to get the job done in less time is not good for business, the not only will the experiment fail but so too will the business.
Moving to a four-day week has benefits and drawbacks. It is a chance to thrive, but it is not a binary choice, there are many moving parts. For those considering trialling such an approach they need to identify what benefits they think will arise, the potential pitfalls and how they can be guarded against and have a very clear strategy for going into the trial, coming out of it and assessing its success, or failure and will need to clearly measure the impact of profit, productivity, and employee well-being.
The next steps
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