The four-day week: A modern way of working or a stress-inducing nightmare?

It's a divisive issue for employers, but for some HR leaders it simply doesn't go far enough

The four-day week: A modern way of working or a stress-inducing nightmare?

Hybrid and flexible models may be post-pandemic trends, but their origins are decidedly older. As Albert Einstein once said, the measure of intelligence is the ability to change. As humans, we flourish in a perfect mix of structure and flexibility – the choice to decide how and where we work whilst retaining a rhythm to our days. Now, as the great return to work begins, employers are eyeing up new ways of working – ones that’ll help them keep hold of their top talent without costing them any productivity.

This is where the four-day work week first took flight.

It follows that by dropping one day of work, work-life balance improves, right? Well, not exactly. In theory, the four day week is magical – it’s the answer to employees’ wants and employers’ worries. But in practice, is it really flexible enough? Research from Joblist found that while 94% of jobseekers are actually looking for a company with a four-day week, employees who work in that model reported a 27% increase in stress, according to Formstack. It’s this lack of flexibility, and a need to cram all of one’s work into a tighter timeframe, that causing discomfort.

“While the four-day week might be flexible enough for some, we shouldn’t lose sight of the value of personalization in today’s workplace practices,” says Megan Smith, head of HR  at SAP. “From employee to employee, their lifestyle and work routine requirements vary. Ultimately people want flexibility and choice as much as possible in how they balance their time and priorities. When you condense work into four days, this does create an extra day off which is lovely, but it also reduces the ability to have personal flexibility over those four working days. Now that time needs to increase in work productivity - 100% of the business requirements now accomplished in 80% of the time.”

That’s not to say that the four-day week is a bad idea – in theory it’s excellent. And, if an organization rolls out their model to perfection, looking at ways to be amendable and personalize individual workloads then it could work well. However, it falls once again on HR to understand the nuances behind the latest trends and not jump the gun in adopting an inflexible and unrealistic model.

“When contemplating a four-day work week, an organization must first assess if this is even feasible,” Dr Melanie Peacock, associate professor of HR at Mount Royal, told HRD. “An initial review requires the structure of this offering. Will all employees work the same four days, or will there be staggered days off, or overlapping or core hours on-site during the workdays? What jobs are suitable for this type of arrangement, and which may not be? This requires that a thorough and transparent job analysis for all company roles be conducted.”

So how can employers balance employee expectations with business sense? Well, it all comes down to understanding the message at the heart of the model. The four-day week isn’t designed to overwork your employees, nor is it a tool to see an instant increase in productivity. It’s a way of rewarding your people with extra time off and an improved work-life balance. If you don’t adopt the model in the correct way, employees will just end up working overtime – leading to burnout and mental health issues.

“One caveat I will add about flexible work which is important, regardless of how many days someone works, we all must factor in boundary setting within the culture of any organization,” says Smith. “As we talk about flexibility, we don’t want to lose sight of protected time off. Experimenting with different work styles creates opportunity for personalization, but it also requires developing the skill of tuning in and importantly out of work, since there less traditional boundaries in place.”

What’re your thoughts on the four-day week? Tell us in the comments.

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