The four-day week is not for everyone, but flexibility is here to stay

By Dawn Brown, HR expert, MHR

The debate about the merits of a four-day week has started again after the Spanish government gave the go-ahead to a pilot project.

The Spanish pilot, for a 32-hour, four-day week, follows experiments that began before the pandemic in Germany and New Zealand, where enthusiasts claim a shorter week strikes the right balance between companies’ desire for high productivity and the need for improved employee wellbeing. The consumer giant Unilever is part of the trials in New Zealand, experimenting with a four-day week until December this year. This move only affects 81 employees however, raising the question of how relevant such a trial is to sectors like manufacturing or contact centres where many companies require employees to be on-site as part of round-the-clock shift-working patterns.

Despite the obvious appeal of a reduced working week, employers and employees alike must fully understand the practical implications, which might not be desirable for all. Most employers will question whether reducing hours is sensible as the economy seeks to recover from a sudden and far-reaching recession triggered by the pandemic. In the UK the four-day week complicates the debate about employee productivity, which lags behind most G7 competitors.

Switching to four-day working also demands a significant change in how companies view productivity. Instead of concentrating on hours worked, which leads to presenteeism, businesses considering a change should focus on measuring outputs in detail. This will provide a firm basis on which to make a judgment about the viability of the four-day week. Time wasted in unnecessarily long meetings, admin and procrastination could be reclaimed through a more diligent approach and the implementation of automation technology, especially for routine HR admin tasks.

Smart rostering can also allay understandable concerns about customer service in a four-day week, allowing five-day operations to continue by having more than one person covering a role. Small businesses without the capacity to accommodate such a shift may, however, have to consider closing one day a week or reducing their hours each day if they want to adopt four-day working. The keystone of success in this is to ensure the focus remains on quality of service while communicating the change in hours to all customers.

That still leaves the question of wellbeing. Employers considering a shorter week must avoid their workforces striving to accomplish heavy workloads in less time. That is only likely to cause stress and ill-health. Additionally, nobody has yet come to a universally applicable set of guidelines about whether a four-day working week should result in pay, holidays and associated employee benefits being given pro-rata.

We must face the fact that for many companies it is simply not possible to complete five days’ work in 20 per cent less time. Without reducing salaries, the immediate benefits of a shorter week become difficult for many employers to see, while the majority of employees cannot afford to have their pay reduced to allow for a three-day weekend. 

There is an alternative, however. Where the four-day week is not viable or desirable, employers should consider flexible working. Without a doubt, the pandemic has awoken employees to the opportunities for a more flexible working set-up that fits in with their lifestyles or responsibilities of employees and the requirements of business.

The demand is particularly strong among younger professionals, parents of young children, adults with caring responsibilities, and those wanting a greater work-life balance. Any employer would be ill-advised to ignore this change in employee sentiment, especially when there remains a shortage of skilled and experienced employees in many sectors. Here again, rostering should allow employees to work when they are best able to concentrate, even if that is early in the morning or late at night.  This should, of course, include the ability to work from home after agreement on the arrangements. Flexibility may also include allowing employees who are capable of it to work the equivalent hours of a five-day week across four days, for example.

This level of flexibility is much easier for employers who already deploy more advanced rostering and time-and-attendance technology, especially if it is cloud-based to provide reliable and secure self-service access from home.

Trust also becomes very important in these circumstances. Managers need to know they can rely on employees and that employees are clear on what the requirements are. Regular, easily conducted check-ins with individuals, wherever they are, help achieve such understanding. This ensures nobody feels neglected or ends up with an excessive or unsuitable workload.

The four-day week will not appeal to all employers and is no cure-all for employee wellbeing. It also comes with the risk of creating more stress than it relieves, as workers struggle to cram five days’ work into four. Yet it should not be dismissed as an unrealistic dream. Many organisations may have to adopt it in some form so they can attract and retain talent when skills are in short-supply. Even if they come to the conclusion that the four-day week is a non-starter, employers should consider increased flexibility so they get the best out of a skilled workforce.

Author: Editorial Team

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