The five day work week goes back to the early 1930’s when pioneering business owners such as Henry Ford and John Boot in the USA and UK realized they could minimise absenteeism and improve productivity by allowing workers two days off a week. Prior to this six days a week was the norm, with most businesses only closed for Sunday.
It’s fair to say then that the working week is not immutable; Monday to Friday is not holy, it is not set in stone, and it could well be subject to change. We should keep in perspective that a working practice introduced to solve the problems of close to 100 years ago does not necessarily reflect the expectations or challenges of 2021.
Flexibility has become more and more important to professionals in the modern era, but 2020 was when we really saw widespread change, as businesses implemented remote or flexible working strategies. Commuting for many was no longer a serious imposition on their time, wallet and stress levels, allowing them to refocus their energies and heighten wellbeing – all important factors in boosting engagement and retention for businesses.
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So what’s next?
Now companies are taking the next logical step, reducing the five day week to just four with the same annual salary. Employees work only slightly less hours, often 34 or 35 instead of 37 to 40, with businesses finding they can cut a few hours here and a few there, giving employees slightly longer but fewer days at work per week.
With the reduction in time spent commuting this is quite feasible for many people, who can simply wake up, have breakfast, and log into work, without wasting an hour on the train.
Such an initiative allows professionals more time to de-stress, enjoy time with family and friends and spend their hard earned money, which helps keep capital flowing at a particularly critical time for many industries outside the tech sphere. Well rested employees are more energized, creative and productive, a win-win for all.
So to summarise: workers earn the same wage but spend less time at work, are more productive, are at a reduced risk of burnout, and are less likely to change job… is it too good to be true?
Can it really work?
Can is not the same as must, there is certainly nothing forcing any business to move to or even consider a four day working week, but if companies do choose to implement such a strategy, they must do so carefully.
The biggest potential pitfall of shortening a working week, is that employees are no longer able to complete their work on time, so depending on their position within the company, such an option simply may not be viable for them.
The simplest and fairest way to manage this issue is to offer reduced hours as a blanket option not a rule, encouraging employees to manage their own time to best take advantage of such a scheme. Implementing a reduced hours scheme isn’t really the problem though, the greatest hurdle to overcome is our traditional working values.
It is easy to be skeptical of such a radical shift in how we traditionally perceive the working week, particularly with regards to productivity. But the past has shown that if an idea works, takes roots and flowers, it will bloom across the business landscape in time to come.
Give me some examples?
As we all know, only the freshest flowers attract the busy worker bees, so organisations would do well to study other businesses who are already making this work, in order to attract the best talent the market has to offer.
Companies such as Atom Bank, for example, have incorporated the scheme with great success, with Boss Mark Mullen stating:
“Before Covid, the conventional wisdom was you had to commute in, sit at a desk all day and repeat that process when you commuted home. Covid showed us that it wasn't necessary… I think doing 9-5, Monday to Friday is a pretty old fashioned way of working."
Microsoft Japan boosted sales by nearly 40% in 2019 during an experiment in which staff worked a four-day week for full pay. They also found that employees took 25% fewer days off and noted significant increases in operational efficiency.
A four year trial of the four day week in Rekyjavik was declared an “overwhelming success”. The trials, which included more than 2500 workers, took place in offices, schools, social service providers and hospitals. The trials have led to positive change for many professionals in the country, with up to 86% of Iceland’s workforce moving to shorter hours for the same pay.
Unilever is currently running a one year experiment from December 2020 to December 2021 for it’s New Zealand staff, giving them the opportunity to slash their hours by 20%. The goal of the test was to "measure performance on output not time," said Nick Bangs, managing director of Unilever New Zealand.
“The old ways of working are outdated,” he continued, explaining that "essentially, this is about a holistic understanding of how work and life fit together, and improving mental and physical wellbeing."
As these examples show, a four day future really is a possibility, and a positive one at that. As candidate expectations move ever more towards flexibility, we may well see a shift in hours, allowing professionals and businesses to finetune their work-life balance.
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