Does the four-day week grant employees the flexibility and skills development opportunities they desire? Or is it another rigid working arrangement? Ashleigh Webber reports.
The four-day week is often hailed as the solution to challenges around productivity, wellbeing and employee engagement. The concept is certainly alluring to workers, many of whom would jump at the chance of spending less time at work for the same rate of pay, and for organisations looking to stand out in an increasingly competitive labour market, this arrangement may be the selling point for many candidates.
However, with employees valuing flexibility and skills development opportunities now more than ever, is the four-day week too rigid and could it be taking away the natural downtime between tasks that can be used for development?
For Andy Spence, an HR consultant, writer and researcher on the future of work, implementing a four-day workweek is at odds with the flexibility that employers and the government are trying to promote.
He says: “During the industrial revolution we had a six-day week, and later we moved to the five-day week, so there’s a school of thought that this is the natural progression and a better deal for workers. But I’ve got a counterargument: I think it’s a bit bossy to tell people the days they must work. To me, it comes from the same ‘command and control’ mindset that gave us the six-day week.”
For a four-day week to work without disrupting business operations, employers often prescribe which days of the week employees are to take off. This is no better than a Monday to Friday 9-5 arrangement from a flexibility perspective, argues Spence.
Four-day week and skills development
“For some knowledge-based industries, organisations can look at work design and consider where people should work and what hours they do, and they may well come up with a four-day week. But let’s try to implement that in a prison, or a hospital, or an airport, and it becomes much more difficult,” he adds.
Less time for L&D?
With the UK facing a skills crisis and waning productivity growth, there are also concerns about whether now is the right time to be experimenting with more time off. Critics argue that by compressing the work week into a shorter timeframe, employees are given less time for learning and skills development.
“Fitting everything in could be a bit of squeeze,” says Peninsula’s HR advice and consultancy director Kate Palmer. “There could be less time for training in the way in which it is currently provided to employees, so employers may need to get more creative in their L&D offering.”
“I don’t think a four-day week is going to increase innovation necessarily,” adds Spence. “There’s a lot of L&D that’s focused on compliance, health and safety, and legal responsibilities etc – employees can’t get away from these and the four-day week could squeeze the amount of time they have to do them.”
However, the shorter workweek might actually be beneficial for L&D programme design, suggests Matteo Penzo, CEO of text-based learning platform Zick Learn.
“With limited work hours available, it enables employees to engage in short bursts of relevant learning, enhancing both their productivity and their knowledge retention,” he says. Bite-sized online training rather than in-person sessions may be more suitable.
PR and marketing agency BE YELLOW is trying another approach. Co-founder Hayley Knight says her team are encouraged to use their “day off” for learning and development to ensure this valuable practice does not get forgotten when they are busy.
“It’s our policy that employees use half of their day off for professional development, however they see fit. For the other half they’re free to do what they like, but we do encourage them to participate in activities that will give them a greater sense of wellbeing and life satisfaction,” she says.
“We wanted it to create a company culture of creativity, curiosity, innovation and motivation, and this is why we decided to structure our initiative in such a way.”
Although Spence does not generally recommend suggesting what employees should do in their free time, he says many workers are using time away from work to improve their professional skills anyway, so some may wish to use some of this time for learning they struggle to fit in during the week.
Despite the argument that a four-day week is yet another trend only accessible for office workers, several organisations are exploring how it can be implemented for deskless staff.
It’s our policy that employees use half of their day off for professional development, however they see fit. For the other half they’re free to do what they like.” – Hayley Knight, BE YELLOW
South Cambridgeshire District Council recently introduced the initiative among refuse collectors. So far it has exceeded its 99.7% bin collection target which suggests productivity has not suffered because of the policy, which perhaps dismisses the government’s argument that four-day weeks in local authorities do not deliver value for money for taxpayers.
Figures reported to the council’s employment and staffing committee show that staff turnover across the entire trial cohort, which includes desk-based workers, has reduced by 36%, while sickness absence has reduced by 33%. Ninety-seven new employees have been recruited – including some in ‘hard to fill” roles like HGV drivers and planning officers.
“The data for the office-based trial continues to be very positive. Retention has improved, recruitment has improved, health and wellbeing has improved whilst performance has been at least maintained and projected costs reduced,” said the council’s report.
Retailers have also been exploring the concept. Marks & Spencer has given store managers the option of four-day week or a nine-day compressed fortnight, while Sainsbury’s has also begun offering workers a four-day week, although this was initially only available to head office staff, warehouse workers and store managers.
Chris Brook-Carter, chief executive of the Retail Trust, says there are understandable concerns about how retailers with 24/7 operations can implement shorter working weeks, but this arrangement could be possible. He says: “Starting small, being clear and transparent about what you’re trying to achieve and what the measures of success might be and then listening and learning are all going to be vitally important when it comes to exploring and implementing these innovative new ways of working.”
Benedikt Ilg, CEO of deskless workforce management app Flip, says thought needs to be given to processes and workflows in deskless environments. If a shorter week is not possible for all of the workforce, employers should attempt to alleviate the pressure on those who must work for longer.
He says: “Employees like nursing staff and those in production and retail are often treated as second-class employees compared to their desk-based peers in administration. This might appear as an unpopular statement but to change this, companies and organisations can utilise the opportunities available everywhere in their organisations to allow for better working conditions in deskless areas.
“If a company can increase efficiency in their administrative area so that it can achieve the same output with 80 per cent of the capacity, then it could use the efficiency gain to hire additional staff in [other areas]. This could finally lead to shift schedules that are less stressful for employees, resulting in a reduction in sickness rates and realising even more potential for reducing working hours.”
Don’t create a divide
However, introducing a four-day week in one area of a business over another could be risky, suggests Palmer.
“It is probably going to cause considerable divide within the workforce and morale could take a nosedive. Employers will need to be confident that their decision stands up to scrutiny. There should be a clear and strong rationale, supported by evidence, as to why it wouldn’t work for one particular part of the workforce but would work for another,” she says.
Although several studies in the UK, Ireland, Iceland, Canada and beyond have sought to convince organisations of the benefits of a four-day workweek, with last year’s UK trial finding that 92% of participants wanted to continue the policy beyond the study period, it will not always be practical or beneficial for every organisation.
Spence warns employers against basing their decisions on the results of these studies as they mainly involved smaller organisations with desk-based operations – not entirely representative of the UK economy. However, he says there are some steps employers can take to maximise the chance of a successful outcome if they do want to experiment with the working week.
“Don’t move to a prescribed outcome – think about what you want to achieve and how to achieve it. Some organisations will end up with a four-day week, but it’s not going to work as a blanket solution – there’s just too much diversity in our industries,” he says.
“Offering flexibility is a real way to attract and keep people, but flexibility, autonomy, equity, can all be achieved in a variety of ways – not just what days of the week we should work.”