The benefits and pitfalls of a 'four-day work week'

Nobody on their deathbed has ever said: "I wish I'd spent more time at the office."

The benefits and pitfalls of a 'four-day work week'

Nobody on their deathbed has ever said: “I wish I’d spent more time at the office.” The meteoric rise of workplace technology has led to flexible working and remote offices becoming the norm – but it’s also sparked an increased appetite for work-life balance.

As we push on into 2019, employers and employees alike will undoubtedly be hearing talk of the ‘four-day work week’. To its supporters, the four-day week is a natural progression for the modern organization, heralding a new, more-employee centric, world order. To its critics, it’s nothing but a ‘snowflake’ plot to shy away from yet more responsibilities and accrue extra annual leave.

But what does the data say? Can you empirically measure the impact of a decreased working week - or are employers being drawn-in blindly?

Misconceptions around the four-day week are abundant – primarily that employees will continue with the same working structure and just enjoy an extra day away from the office. In reality, employees won’t be working any less hours. If we consider that the average working day is nine-to-five culminating in a 40-hour week, the reduced model simply pushes all 40 hours into four days. Four 10-hour days allows the employee an extra day of freedom, without technically losing any manpower or stifling productivity.

And the benefits seem to speak for themselves. The prize of having that extra day off each week reportedly drives employees to use their time in the office more efficiently and cuts out any harmful procrastination. Case in point comes from Pursuit Marketing, a Glasgow-based marketing firm, which saw a 29.5% rise in productivity in the two years after they implanted to four-day week. According to reports, the company also saw a spike in employee satisfaction and overall wellbeing.

Across the pond, a New Zealand organization - Perpetual Guardian – saw a 20% increase in employee productivity and a rise in profits after adopting the shorter week.

But it’s not just smaller outfits that are onboard. Recently, German manufacturing giant IG Metall offers workers the option of reducing their week to just 30 hours, offering more flexibility for employees wanting a work-life balance. Amazon equally made the same deal with staff in 2016, when they tested out a 30-hour week model for a period.

Driving factors behind implementing the four-day week are the heightened skills shortage and war for talent that’s raging across the globe. With companies competing for the best of the best, candidates are finally in a position of power. One way of enhancing any brand recognition is by rolling out the newest ‘flavour of the month’ – be it unlimited annual leave, egg-freezing or even, in some cases, cryopreservation.

Is the four-day week simply the next fad in employee benefits? Or is it the answer to a real and pressing mental health concern?

In today’s world, being constantly ‘switched-on’ is a problem. Stress and unmanageable workloads are often cited as the two main causes of diminished retention and employee burn-out.

As Gen Z enters the workplace, organizations are placing more onus on protecting the physiological wellbeing of staff – which in some cases means enforcing a work-life balance on employees, whether they want it or not. Banning after-work emails and diverting calls during weekends are becoming the norm for younger start-up companies, looking to draw-in those talented, independently-minded, candidates. In light of this, a recent trial at the University of Auckland found that staff stress was dramatically reduced after a four-day week was implemented – from 45% to 83% - with work-life balance improving 24%.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s easy to rave about the benefits of a reduced working week, but it’s foolhardy not to consider the downfalls.

For starters, this model isn’t feasible for some industries – mainly the ones which require a 24/7 presence such as emergency services. Then you’d have to consider the monumental risk your organization would be taking. If, by chance, the initiative didn’t work out – you’ve essentially lost a huge amount of time and money.

When it comes to issues such as hitting targets or paying bonuses, employee contracts would have to be amended to fit the new schedule. Even though the amount of time spent in the office wouldn’t technically change, timelines would have to be modified to fit in with the shorter week.

“I’ve seen the polls saying 58% of employees want to participate in a four-day work week – but it’s more complex than that,” explained Lorenzo Lisi, partner at Aird and Berlis.

“From a legal perspective, there’s not much that can’t be tweaked with employee contracts, especially in regards to bonus plans. Bonuses are based on metrics, not days or hours worked. As such, if an employee hits their metrics within their bonus plans, they’ll receive the pay-out whether you work one day or several days.

“I think the real issue arises if employees are entitled to be off one extra day, but then they actually choose to work it anyway.

“HR needs to regulate the new structure. In other words, have a process in which if an employee chooses to work the extra day then this needs to be approved via a notification process. Much like an annual leave request in reverse.

“Employers should have rules around how this will work. What tends to happen, especially in professional services, is employees are paid for four days but then wind-up working five due to unmanageable workloads. The four-day work week takes some careful planning from the employer’s side, and some management of expectations with staff, however, it can be done.”

The four-day work week is a great idea in theory. The notion of having an extra day off to spend with loved ones is an easy cause to buy into – but it’s not all rainbows and picnics. HR has a duty to analyse every aspect of the new model of work before leaping in blindly.

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