The UK is currently taking part in a 6-month trial of a 4-day week, with no loss in pay for employees. It runs alongside similar pilot schemes taking place in Ireland, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Flexible working works
Workplace flexibility can reduce commuting time and congestion, it reduces business costs requiring less office space as well as the opportunity to redesign the office to maximise collaboration, thus making it appealing to policymakers and employers. For employees, these arrangements promise to facilitate work-life balance by providing greater control over how they allocate and spend their time at work and in their personal life.
4 Day Week Global, a not-for-profit community, say in their white paper that:
- 63% of businesses found it easier to attract and retain talent with a 4-day week; and
- 78% of employees with 4-day weeks are happier and less stressed.
Iceland reported on their trail in 2021. Productivity and service provision remained the same or improved across the majority of trial workplaces. Participating workers took on fewer hours and enjoyed greater well-being, improved work-life balance and a better cooperative spirit in the workplace, all while maintaining existing standards of performance and productivity. By the time the Icelandic report was published in June 2021, 86% of Iceland’s working population were on contracts that either moved them to shorter working hours, or gave them the right to do so in the future.
Productivity: Does reducing the working week increase productivity?
The UK has long had a problem with productivity, so cutting the working week sounds counter-productive; certainly Lord Sugar, Elon Musk and Jacob Rees-Mogg believe working from home is for skivers. But the evidence doesn’t support their views.
A century ago Henry Ford, not exactly known for his enlightened views on management and taking care of humans, reduced the workweek from six days to five because he found that people were more productive – morale went up, there was more loyalty, and there was lower turnover. In the 1930s, W.K. Kellogg, of cornflake fame, offered his workers 6-hour shifts instead of 8. The result – productivity went up, accidents went down. People said they ‘had more life’.
In 2019 Microsoft Japan experimented with a four-day week which led to more efficient meetings, happier workers and boosted productivity by a staggering 40%, the company concluded at the end of the trial. A Microsoft spokesman said, “In the spirit of a growth mindset, we are always looking for new ways to innovate and leverage our own technology to improve the experience for our employees around the globe.”
I’ve long been an advocate of sculpting the job around the needs of employees; there is no point in going into the office to have a Zoom call, or check emails, when you can do that from home. Knowledge workers in particular want more flexibility and choice. We do have to recognise that different categories of workers have very different needs; some want the office environment with prescribed days and times, others want the job to be built around their needs, taking account of childcare, schooling and their partners working arrangements.
However, building jobs around the needs of employees requires a very different management style. I suspect that’s what Sugar et al are struggling to come to terms with, in that a command-and-control style is no longer the order of the day. Being employee-centric requires a significantly more agile management style. It’s a management revolution.
It was reported recently that managers don’t like working from home as much as their team members do. That’s because it’s so much easier to manage according to presence rather than performance but there’s a lack of realism in this attitude, presenteeism and managing by walking around don’t aid productivity. Yes, you were there 8 hours, or 10 hours, your jacket hanging over your chair, the light burning in your office, but actually in a knowledge-based economy, your boss probably has little idea how much work you actually got done.
More hours, more work?
Does working more hours mean we get more done? According to numerous studies in laboratories, workplaces, classrooms, and other settings, rewards typically undermine the very processes they are intended to enhance. The plain truth is that most workers spend a relatively large proportion of the working day catching up with colleagues, chatting, preparing snacks or drinks, checking their personal email or social media, fixing errors, procrastinating, engaging in or avoiding office politics, or waiting for colleagues to produce work or resources.
In the UAE where they instituted a four day week, they found 70% of employees reported that they are working more efficiently, prioritising and managing their time better during the week; a 55% reduction in absenteeism, and 71% of employees reported that they’re spending more time with their families.
The great benefit here is that the ability to work in new and different ways, affords the ability to choose how you want to work, where you want to work and what works with your life. At 10Eighty we tell people to take as much holiday time as they want – as long as you deliver on your commitments, nobody is counting vacation days. Give employees control over their schedules, work planning and priorities, it will pay off. In the final analysis it’s all about trusting your employees.
Time and technology
Currently there is much talk about the need for growth, and the UK’s woeful record. We need growth and improved productivity, but I think that with the help of technology and flexible ways of working, we are going to be able to create prosperity. Not by working more hours, but by increasing productivity in the way that we interact with innovation and technology.
Collaboration is crucial in the modern workplace and the pandemic has shown us that this doesn’t need to be face-to-face, we’ve become accustomed to conference calls and platforms that enable knowledge sharing and the pooling of resources alongside messaging and scheduling apps. Technology is the great enabler when it comes to innovation and collaboration.
In an environment where technology and AI are playing an increasing role, we need talent that can focus on exploring new routes to diversification, creativity, knowledge and learning. It’s important to understand the personal career values of employees and respond to the needs and aspirations of the workforce, boomers and millennials alike who want flexible working, a voice, autonomy, choice and an environment conducive to wellbeing as well as productivity.
Skills shortages and talent pipeline are serious issues for organisations in every sector. We have record unemployment and demand outstrips supply of labour. The smart employer will focus on talent management strategies that empower employees, inspire high performance, facilitating and rewarding development and skills acquisition, to enhance business outcomes.
I firmly believe that job design is key here. An employee-centric HR strategy will tailor the role to the person and make your organisation one where your workers truly want to be. Effective leadership must look to find a competitive edge by transforming the workplace using upskilling, reskilling, and by ensuring viable career pathways, internal mobility and real talent management.
Work provides a sense of meaning and accomplishment, and much of our identity is tied to work but it can crowd out a lot of other things and a happy, healthy, productive working life is something that should be an aspiration in the modern workplace.