The four-day week: rewriting the HR rulebook

Hybrid working practices formed in the crucible of the pandemic are changing when and where we work. As we emerge from the lifting of workplace Covid-19 requirements, what are employee expectations for the Great Return? How can companies respond?

Think Global People Spring 2022 Issue
This article is taken from the latest issue of Think Global People magazine.
Click on the cover to access the digital edition.

The stakes are high. The so-called Great Resignation or Great Re-evaluation spurred by the Covid-19 pandemic is prompting high attrition, record pay awards and deepening skills shortages. Employees want meaningful work with employers whose purpose makes sense to them. They also want to feel valued, cared for and like they can progress.
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It’s in this context that Peter Cheese, Chief Executive of the CIPD, called for HR to “rewrite the rulebook” at the professional body for HR and people development’s annual conference at the end of last year. Could the five-day working week be the first to have a line crossed through it?

Take five - or four?

Critics of the five-day week say this cornerstone of working life is no longer fit for purpose in post-industrial economies of the twenty-first century, linking it to poor wellbeing and productivity.Instead, hybrid working patterns that combine flexibility of working hours with where we work are shaking up the working week as we emerge from Covid-19 restrictions in many parts of the world and return to “business as normal”.So much so that last year, data from HR software provider CharlieHR suggested fewer than 5% of SMEs would return to the nine-five/five-day week postlockdown. A significant amount of research also shows that a majority of employees would consider leaving their employer if their option to work from home was removed.In the workplace, organisations of all sizes and representing diverse sectors are arguing the case – and indeed piloting – a four-day working week: Microsoft, Unilever, Morrisons and Durham-based online challenger bank Atom among them.Commenting on its six-month trial, which sees office-based staff work four nine-hour days and one six-hour Saturday every four weeks, supermarket chain Morrisons said, “The idea is that this innovative new way of working will mean we are much more flexible and responsive, and we think it will make Morrisons a place where more people will want to join – and stay.“The company noticed that working from home during the pandemic had made employees more productive, quicker and more flexible. It can help us as a company to be more productive. It can have all sorts of health benefits. And it puts everybody’s wellbeing first.”Morrisons joins at least 30 more companies in the UK and proponents like the Icelandic government, which ran a successful trial with Reykjavik City between 2015-19. Employees worked 35-36 hours across four days for the same pay as five days across a wide range of workplace and shift patterns.Iceland’s Association for Sustainable Democracy (Alda) and UK think-tank Autonomy’s study tracked the scheme. Their concluding study, Going Public: Iceland’s journey to a shorter working week, reported unchanged or higher productivity alongside unchanged service levels. Their research also found that “worker wellbeing dramatically increased across a range of indicators, from perceived stress and burnout to health and worklife balance.”The study further reported how benefits extended beyond employees to their extended family, friends and communities, who had greater contact with trial participants. From an inclusion perspective, male partners in heterosexual households also took on greater domestic responsibilities – often a factor in workplace gender pay inequalities. There were also positive effects on single-parent households, a demographic that is often acutely time-poor.Today, 86% of Iceland’s working population have either moved to shorter hours for the same pay or will gain the right to. Gudmundur Haraldsson, a researcher at Alda, said: “The Icelandic shorter working week journey tells us that not only is it possible to work less in modern times, but that progressive change is possible too.”

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More about the new world of work:

Working smarter?

After being on the horizon for at least a decade, the reality of the four-day week movement is now with us. It’s easy to see why. The benefits resonate with many key issues in today’s workplaces: wellbeing, diversity, equity and inclusion, sustainability, purpose and performance. From an environmental perspective alone, if the UK moved to a four-day week by 2025, emissions would shrink by 127 million tonnes, or 20%, helping the country to meet its 2030 greenhouse gas reduction goals.In February, Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, Sophie Howe, followed governments in Scotland and Ireland to advocate a shorter working week trial for Wales. “It’s clear that following the pandemic, people across Wales are re-evaluating their priorities in life and looking for a healthier work-life balance.”Highlighting the escalating demands of caring for loved ones due to an ageing population and an increase in mental health issues exacerbated by working long hours, Sophie Howe added “a shorter working week can result in increased productivity which will be of huge benefit to employers for a happier, healthier workforce.”

Good work more important than hours worked?

As pilots roll out in companies in the rest of the UK and around the world, including participants in the latest round of the 4 Day Global campaign, other research is helpfully developing the debate. The results suggest that on its own a shorter working week is no replacement for quality jobs, or “good work”.The Cambridge Journal of Economics article, “What matters more for employees’ mental health: job quality or job quantity?”, for example, by Senhu Wang, Daiga Kamerāde, Brendan Burchell, Adam Coutts, Sarah Ursula Balderson published in December 2021 suggests that “actual working hours are hardly related to employees’ mental health.”Instead, “job quality, especially intrinsically meaningful work, less intensified work and having a favourable social environment, has positive effects on employee mental health, even in jobs with short working hours.”The paper’s findings and the experiences of companies piloting the approach underscore the importance of a positive organisational ecosystem to support employees – whether following a reduced-hours week or otherwise – that relies on good line management and leadership, and a positive workplace culture.

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More about wellbeing and ESG:

Good hours' working

If not managed well and without an appropriate supporting culture, compressing hours into fewer days can lead to employee burnout and higher stress levels. Scheduling challenges in production and manufacturing for example may also mean working four-day weeks is simply not possible for all employees. Staying connected with colleagues can be a further challenge in hybrid and reduced hours working, which can counter other positive impacts. There is also the inclusion aspect, with 46% of UK employees still having no access to any form of flexible working in their current role.So, how can organisations tread their own path on the issue, and respond to employee needs around flexible working; including hybrid working, the four-day week, staying connected and better balancing work and home life?“One of the pitfalls that organisations fall into is following the latest ‘culture’ trend without considering how that operational activity will affect their culture,” says Ben Gateley, CEO of software platform, Charlie HR. “Culture should always help you attract the right talent, retain them and enable them to do their best work, when it comes to looking at the four-day workweek. For us at Charlie that meant adapting that policy to enable the type of culture we’re trying to craft here.”Harriet Calver, Senior Associate at law firm Winckworth Sherwood, advises that businesses looking to a four-day working week should “take time to properly assess how it will impact on your business, weighing up the positives and negatives, and to consult with employees to garner their views, before making any firm decisions.“A four-day working week model clearly won’t suit every business and will require genuine support from both leadership and the employees, as well the appropriate technology and infrastructure, to give it any chance of success.”Engaging with employees is clearly critical. Research from Theta Global Advisers in February – released as lockdown restrictions in the UK were lifted – found that 24% of Britons report that their employer hasn’t explored any flexible working options to help them return to work. This while more than half of British workers say they worked better at home and 40% believing a strict return to the office this spring would hinder their performance.

Flexible from day one

While the four-day week clearly has its benefits and can be a game-changer, it is not the only option on the table. Hybrid and other forms of working, such as making all jobs flexible from day one, are other ways to achieve recruitment, retention, wellbeing and inclusion outcomes.The CIPD’s campaign to make all jobs flexible from day one the default has gained new resonance post-pandemic. As co-chair of the government task force to promote wider understanding and implementation of inclusive flexible working practices, the CIPD launched the campaign in 2021. The body is calling for a change to UK law to make flexible working requests a day-one right for all employees: a proposal the government put out for consultation in September 2021.“Learning from the pandemic, many organisations are now open to more hybrid ways of working which give their employees greater flexibility and say over where they work,” said Peter Cheese on the consultation’s announcement.“Flexible working is good for inclusion, wellbeing and productivity, and will help employers attract and retain a more diverse workforce. People have a higher expectation now of how working practices can be more flexible and supportive for the future. The HR and people profession has a vital role to play in helping employers develop the right culture and policies and in training managers to support a more flexible workforce.”
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Read more about the Great Return in the Spring 2022 issue of Think Global People.

To explore more widely the new ways of working, why not join us on 9 June for the results of the Think Global People and Relocate Awards and the Future of Work Festival?

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