How companies approach and carry out their activities continues to swiftly change.  The impact of a continuing technology revolution, the need to be more environmentally friendly, and the expectation of employer value proposition all playing a significant part.  We find ourselves in quite an extraordinary place with diversity in the workplace with:

Baby boomers +55

Generation X: 38-54

Millennials: 23-37

Generation Z: 16-22

What is common across all generations is the desire and need for flexibility in their work-life patterns.  This is particularly so of Generation Z and Millennials – it is becoming clear that those companies which do not embrace the flexibly themselves will face challenging times in attracting this population to positions and vacancies – resulting in potential skills gaps in the future.

No longer is the desire for a 9-5, five days a week job – equally factory style jobs are less popular – not helped by the decline in the manufacturing sector over the years.  Technology has transformed office environments – assigned to the history books are the days where you had to queue to use the computer in the office, typing pools, carbon copied orders, dedicated telex processors…!

Permanent Flexibility is a term coined by Mercer in their 2018 Global Talent Trends Survey refers to flexible work arrangements that are in flow with a modern digital lifestyle. Flexibility involves rethinking how work is done and by whom.  51% of employees want their workplace to offer more flexibility.

More agile based office roles and service industries have dominated in recent times, more females returning into the employment market needing part time or full time work, all widening the talent pool of the country, but all seeking the flexibility to have a good work-life balance.

The employee value proposition is fast becoming dominant in the USP for a company, an aspect of that proposition is how companies appreciate and support flexibility for all in the workplace.  The health pandemic has also shone a light on employers having to take more seriously the psychological contract and the emotional and mental wellbeing of its staff. 

It is more flexibility which is needed or a four-day week?

Firstly, a company must decide what a four-day week looks like for their company and can it work for them.  In true terms a four-day week is reduce the working week to four days but on five days pay and having a 3-day break.  However, it could also mean:

  • The company closes on a set day e.g a Friday, and all work is compressed into four days.  Staff work the same hours but in four days.
  • The company opens all week, and provides a four-day week to staff where five days are compressed into four and an agreed day is decided for the no longer required day?
  • Compressed hours of a four-day week, becomes part of an individual request for flexible working.

Managing Directors and senior executives of companies are reluctant to embrace the true term of a four-day week, and therefore consider alternatives to demonstrate that they understand the need to offer flexible working.

Choosing the interpretation highlights whether there is actually a desire for more flexibility rather than a four-day week.

Does the type of work performed by the company enable a four-day week?

When thinking about a possible move to a four-day week, consideration has to be given to many aspects, so for example:

  • Customer service – what happens if a customer or client can’t make contact on the day the company is closed?
  • Sales capability – can sales be maintained at the same level if a compressed week?
  • Clients – will they become frustrated if no-one is available to take calls?
  • Ability for the back-office processing centres and teams to maintain level of transactions.

In fact, the complexities of implementing such a scheme could outweigh the benefits.

Are there proven benefits?

Those which have trialled or introduced a four-day week have reported:

  • quality of work has improved as productivity increases
  • staff are less stressed
  • people are happier as a result of a four-day working week
  • flexible working is helping companies attract the right talent
  • reduction in running costs, therefore savings can be achieved and improvement of the cost/income ratio resulting in increased profits.

With employee’s wellbeing considered a major factor, and with a four-day week resulting in happier and less stress staff, a more positive and productive environment could occur.

A positive reduction could also be achieved with the carbon footprint as less journeys are required commuting to office bases.  However, this could be off set with journeys to enjoy the increased leisure time. 

There equally could be added benefits for the economy.  With an increase in leisure time, an increased spending at retail outlets, leisure venues as well as in the travel and hospitability sectors including hotels, cafes, pubs and restaurants could be evident.

Results of some trials

A four day week is being trialled in different countries, however leading in this area are Finland (whose prime minster wants their country on a four day working week – they have been leading in flexibility in the work place for many years), followed by Sweden and New Zealand particularly.  In the UK, employees of companies which have trialled a four-day week – with the Friday being the naturally chosen day off – have expressed that the third day provides sufficient recovery and have time to so something else.  Also, that it ends the “Friday afternoon fatigue” with morale and energy levels higher among staff on the four days worked.

It’s not right for every company

Some companies who have planned to introduce such schemes have not taken actual steps towards implementation finding it too complex for their environment to make it work.  Other companies who have trialled the approach have completed the trial and not progressed further.

Some common pitfalls experienced indicate:

  • Complaints from customers had increased – namely that the service expectation had diminished as the company was not open to receive customer or client calls and queries.
  • Wrong approach – particularly when the compressed hours model used – it was not right for all staff – and actually doesn’t provide flexibility and actually increased stress levels.

In summary

For some companies, a four-day week is a step to far and they are more comfortable with local flexibility arrangements with employees.

However, for some, offering such a concept may well be key in the employee value proposition which will play a major role in attracting the talent of the future.

The concept requires to be thought through carefully, that it can work with little disruption to the customer base and the profitability of the company.  Is more individual flexibility the key to success in valuing employees?  As we know they are your greatest asset – they enable and deliver the profitability of the company.

Serena Bower (MCIPD)

Bower HR Consultancy

July 2020

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