What can we learn from the four-day week concept?
This summer, selected businesses across the UK will pilot a four-day workweek to test the potential for success.
Around 30 British businesses are taking part in a six-month trial of a four-day week, where employees will be paid the same amount as if they were working their usual five days. The pilot scheme is run in partnership with researchers at Cambridge University, Oxford University and Boston College and will measure whether employees can operate at 100 percent productivity for 80 percent of the time. Similar trials are also taking place this year in Ireland, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, and Spain.
Challenging the status quo
The standard five-day, nine-to-five structure was invented by Henry Ford who created the five-day, 40-hour workweek in 1926, and which was later adopted by the government in 1940. In the UK, it was John Boot, of Boots pharmacy who advocated for the change. In 1933, he addressed the imbalance of a worrying number of layoffs by allowing Saturday and Sunday off – and as a result, Boots later reported reduced absenteeism and increased productivity. And even though there have been significant changes in the ways we work over the last century, not much has changed since.
However, the surge of remote work during the pandemic showed that we have the capacity to adapt very quickly to new patterns, signalling the possibility of shortening the entire workweek, which has the potential to improve well-being, productivity, and recruitment. The pandemic forced organisations to trust their employees to work from home, and many learned that it wasn’t as difficult as they were expecting. The concept of a four-day working week is not new, but it has gained traction over recent years in response to rising levels of burnout, social inequality, and the climate crisis.
Gallup’s research suggests that for employee engagement, the quality of the work experience is more important than the number of days worked, and simply shortening the workweek is not enough to improve employee engagement in a poorly managed organisation. However, employees do place a high value on flexibility, which can lower stress levels and help them manage other aspects of their lives more effectively, allowing them to be more engaged at work.
Shifting the leadership mindset
Psychological research shows that we tend to focus on easily quantifiable success metrics such as hours worked, rather than more qualitative metrics such as productivity or well-being. As a result, many organisations use responsiveness and hours worked as indicators for employees’ commitment levels, even when those measures seldom correspond to the actual value the employee brings to the organisation. If the four-day week was to be implemented, the successful shift to reduced working hours will require leaders to shift their mindsets and ensure that employees aren’t worried they will be penalised for prioritising work-life balance. And most importantly it would have to start with leaders modelling a healthier work-life balance themselves.
Leaders will also need to acknowledge and embrace the uncertainty that comes with trying out a new initiative. While planning is important, real problem solving and innovation is only possible through trial and error, instead of closed-door conversations among the senior leadership team, and both employees and leaders should be actively involved in making critical decisions. Every organisation and team are different, and there needs to be an open dialogue about how to get more done in less time — whether that’s by implementing new tools, eliminating unnecessary meetings, or making existing meetings more effective.
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