18 April 2021

Though the jury may be out on four-day working, Dawn Brown, HR expert at MHR, outlines the arguments

The Spanish government’s decision to approve a pilot project for a 32-hour, four-day working week has reignited a debate that was trending before the pandemic.

Companies in Germany and New Zealand began experimenting with a shorter week before 2020, claiming it achieved the perfect balance of higher productivity and improved employee happiness and wellbeing. The consumer giant Unilever jumped on the bandwagon, trialling the four-day week in New Zealand (https://bbc.in/3usx7z6); but as this only affects 81 employees, it raises 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. 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’ (https://bit.ly/3t1PASI) – 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 long meetings, admin and procrastination, which companies could reclaim through a more diligent approach and implementation of automation technology, especially for routine 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 if they want four-day working. The keystone of success is to ensure focus remains on customer service while communicating the change to all customers.

Employers considering a shorter week must avoid their workforces suffering from disengagement, stress and ill-health as they seek to accomplish heavy workloads in less time. Additionally, nobody has yet come to an universally applicable set of guidelines about whether a four-day working week should result in pay, holidays and associated employee benefits being prorated.

For many companies it is simply not possible to complete five days’ work in 20% 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.

...employers and employees alike must fully understand the practical implications...

Employers concluding that a four-day week is not viable or desirable, should consider making flexible working more accessible. The pandemic has awoken employees to the opportunities for a more flexible working set-up, and in many cases, employers are responding positively.

The demand for flexible working is particularly strong among younger professionals, working parents of young children, adults with caring responsibilities, and those looking to achieve better work-life balance. Employers 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. Here again, rostering should allow employees to work when they are best able to concentrate, even if that is early 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 that 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. Hassle-free 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 will not work for many employers and is not a panacea to improve employee wellbeing. It comes with many risks, but it cannot be dismissed out of hand. Many organisations will have to examine it to attract and retain talent. Even if they do reject the four-day week, they should consider increased flexibility to optimise the outputs of a skilled workforce and avoid mental burnout. 

Featured in the May 2021 issue of Professional in Payroll, Pensions and Reward. Correct at time of publication.