News of a major UK pilot of a four-day working week has received an overwhelmingly positive response, but Jane Sparrow is concerned many have not given proper thought to the potential consequences for flexibility, output, wellbeing and wages.
I’m really having to bite my tongue at the moment when I see reductionist headlines stating that “four-day working week” trials are a huge success.
I know, it feels like I’m paddling against a strong current and that it’s against everything I stand for, so let me explain.
We’ve been discussing the idea of a four-day week since the 1970s – technology would “free us up” and we’d all have more leisure time. Reality didn’t follow this path and, come 2019, we were working harder and longer than ever. The term “burnout” had gone from being something that the Japanese had a word for (Karoshi – “overwork death”) to a mainstream worry.
Cue 2020 and the global hurricane that was, and still is, the Covid pandemic. Suddenly, old-style work patterns have been blown away; many of us are working from home and there’s a huge push from employees to keep it that way.
Isn’t this the perfect time to trial a four-day week? Absolutely not for most complex work environments. Until the pandemic is over, we cannot make any long-term plans, and we should be balancing the changes in work practices with the short-term need to keep our people safe (and not confuse the two).
Secondly, and hugely importantly, the phrase “four-day week” is plain wrong. For the last decade there’s been a drive to make work a more flexible concept, recognising shifting patterns in people’s lives, needs and wants. We are trying to move away from 9-5 Monday-Friday, and yet, here we are, lopping a day off that outmoded concept. What if somebody wants to work on Sunday, or at 10pm, or at 6am? What if they want to work 10 days straight and then four days off? What if they need time to care for others and themselves, and thus a more fluid work pattern works for them?
Until the pandemic is over, we cannot make any long-term plans, and we should be balancing the changes in work practices with the short-term need to keep our people safe.”
Hence my frustration. The phrase “four-day week” just doesn’t cover what we need to consider to reset work. We should be talking about restructuring the working week, enabling flexible working, challenging old boundaries, and building new ways to trust people. We also need to recognise that any new approach is going to require a huge amount of thinking; the trial in Iceland was for 1% of the population, and rolling it out to the remaining 99% will be a major task.
At the heart of the change is one simple idea – people’s hours being reduced. I am totally in favour of this, but recognise there are challenges ahead if we do so. Firstly, output. The Icelandic trial showed no loss in productivity, which is an excellent outcome. It’s a regularly spoken maxim that we can, if we want, get all our work done in fewer days. But not everyone says this. Some people wish for an extra weekday to get everything done.
For these individuals, often a company’s highest performers, a four-day week will either make them feel massively stressed, or be simply impossible to manage. Worse still, it will threaten the strategic thinking time so many of us already struggle to find. Put bluntly, a shorter week could harm your most talented employees.
Secondly, wage impacts. Yes, some studies have stated they are looking at no salary drop, but that’s going to be hard to avoid. Already, with the work from home move, companies such as Google are considering salary cuts of up to 25% for remote workers. Not all organisations will be as altruistic as the ones involved in the trials. Some will see it as a way of cutting cost, building efficiency or just shilling on the wages of new employees (cue new pay gaps – adding location and attendance to gender and race gaps). Being fair in this new environment will need very strong moral and ethical compasses.
For some, working four set days will be perfect. But for others, starting at 10am and finishing at 3pm every day would be far better. ”
And what about connection? It’s already a major problem for organisations during the work-from-home phases of the pandemic, with team members struggling to remain connected to each other, let alone the wider organisation and customers. Remove a day, and you further pressurise this situation. We will have to see more shift working as, in a 24/7 world, everyone being out on the same day would be impossible. This would result in more complexity and potetially less structure – “Well, Perri, you already have Fridays off, so taking a Thursday afternoon for a personal appointment just won’t work”.
Some organisations will have to hire more people to maintain productivity. Current labour laws restrict working hours for most jobs, and places such as factories, shops and leisure facilities will need to maintain levels of output and staffing. Positively, this will mean more employment and feed into the gig economy (which hasn’t been mentioned recently). But for organisations it’s a new overhead to factor in.
I recognise I’m sounding hugely negative, and I don’t mean to be. I am so passionate about a change to work for us all. But let’s do it properly – talk about our working lives being “condensed and fluid”, and understand what this means. If we are all to work less, it needs to be done in a smart way. Absolutely, for some, working four set days will be perfect. But for others, starting at 10am and finishing at 3pm every day would be far better. And, let’s not rush to give away the farm – we’ve seen this with many recent hybrid working policies that allowed a great deal of flex, and organisations are now struggling to wind back.
My advice? Use the reduced hours trials to start a conversation in your organisation about what it would mean – fairness, flexibility, wage equality, operational requirements, connection, service quality – before making any big decisions. Don’t go and sacrifice Friday; you’ll never get it back.