By Andy Davies, HR expert, MHR
New trials of a four-day working week in different parts of the world have rejuvenated a topic that was gaining interest before the coronavirus caused widespread disruption.
In Europe, the Spanish government has approved a pilot project for a 32-hour, four-day week, following the lead taken by companies in Germany and New Zealand. They began experimenting with a shorter week before 2020, claiming it enabled companies to achieve the balance between higher productivity and enhanced employee wellbeing. In New Zealand, the consumer giant Unilever is trying out the 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 larger on-site workforces in sectors such as manufacturing or contact centres where many companies work round-the-clock.
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 ask whether reducing hours is sensible as the economy seeks to recover from a sudden and far-reaching recession triggered by the pandemic. The current demand for a four-day week in Europe contrasts starkly with attitudes in the Far East where, for example, Chinese tech employers believe in “996” – nine hours work each day for six days-a-week.
Productivity is rightly a concern in the UK, given that the country’s output per worker lags behind most G7 competitors, but if a company is considering switching to four-day working, it may have to change its mindset as well. Instead of concentrating on hours worked, which leads to presenteeism, businesses 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. Studies show that lots of time at work is wasted in unnecessarily long meetings, admin and procrastination. This could be reclaimed by the company through a more diligent approach and the implementation of automation technology, especially for routine HR admin tasks.
Many employers will also worry that customer service is bound to suffer in a four-day week. Some smart rostering could resolve these problems, allowing five-day operations to continue, with more than one person covering a role. Small businesses without the capacity to accommodate such a shift may 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 customer service while communicating the change in hours or availability to all customers.
That still leaves the questions of burnout and wellbeing on the table. Employers considering a shorter week must avoid their workforces suffering from disengagement, stress and ill-health as they seek to accomplish the same workloads in less time. 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 working 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.
If, an employer examines the four-day week and comes to the conclusion that it is not viable or desirable, they should consider making feasible working more accessible. Without a doubt, the pandemic has awoken employees to the opportunities for a more flexible working set-up, and in many cases, employers are responding in a positive manner.
The demand for flexible working is particularly strong among younger professionals, working parents of young children, adults with caring responsibilities, and those who are looking to achieve a better work life balance. Any employer would be ill-advised to ignore this demand, especially when, despite the recession, there remains a shortage of skilled and experienced employees in many sectors. 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 to compress hours so they 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 access from home, with self-service functionality.
Trust is also a vital glue when an organisation’s working hours become more flexible, created through regular communication between managers and individuals, wherever they are working. Hassle-free one to one check-ins give managers oversight and facilitate communication within teams, ensuring nobody is overlooked or left struggling with excessive workload or tasks for which they are not qualified.
The four-day week cannot meet the requirements of many employers and is not a magic wand to improve employee wellbeing. It comes with risks of many kinds, one of which is employees working excessive hours. Nevertheless, employers would be ill-advised to ignore the debate around a shorter week. Its adoption may become necessary to attract very talented employees with specific expectations. Even if employers dismiss the four-day week, they should ponder how to offer increased flexibility so their skilled workforce remains productive, engaged and energetic.