Why the 4-Day Working Week is no ‘Magic Bullet’

Illistration of two collegues in front of a calendar

There has been much talk of a 4-day working week. Even before the pandemic, the concept of cutting working hours to boost productivity and work-life balance was becoming more widely discussed, and now, with the latest Oxbridge, Boston trial, for many companies it is moving from a nice idea to a business reality. But, as Stoic philosopher Epictetus said, “Everything has two handles,” and while the benefits may seem undeniable, there are some challenges and drawbacks that SMEs should be aware of.

There is no doubt that the spirit of the trial – to test new and better ways of working – is wholly positive and should be welcomed. In 2022, the companies that are thriving are the ones investing their time, resources and attention towards building a great place to work — one that values their teams’ wellbeing and personal fulfilment as a top priority. But companies and employees must be under no illusion that the 4-day work week is some kind of ‘magic bullet.’

Companies operate within all kinds of structures. Some will be able to accommodate a shortened working week, and, for others, it would be totally inappropriate. Those with customer-facing roles or with ‘always-on’ tech deliverables will find a 4-day week will be far from practical. And for those for whom it might work, there are wellbeing implications to consider which are at odds with the seemingly work/ life friendly offer to reduce your hours by a significant 20 per cent. Employees whose working week is already maxed-out will find a directive which removes an entire working day every week stressful, meaning they are required to work longer hours to make up the shortfall.

At CharlieHR, we considered the 4-day work week in-depth as part of a wider business review into how our teams were working post-pandemic. We knew that, with working from home, the line between home and work had become increasingly blurred during lockdown, making the concept of work-life balance somewhat outdated. We realised that the challenge was not about finding the right balance between home and work time, but about acknowledging that work is only one part of people’s lives. It left us questioning what change to the traditional 5-day work week could we make to give more time and space for our team to live a fulfilled life, also beyond work?

Our review led us to the understanding that copying what others do is never a good idea. For us, a 4-day work week meant customer-facing teams becoming isolated and out of sync, product sprints being disrupted and even the increased likelihood of negatively affecting our team’s mental health – the very thing a reduced week was supposed to improve. Speaking to our function team leads, we realised that cutting our working hours by 20% with a 4-day work week was potentially going to put teams into a lot of stress. And that would have written off all the potential benefits.

For us, the solution came not in scrapping the whole idea of reducing the working week, but in bringing it down to a 9-day fortnight. This adjusted work policy meant our teams could enjoy every other Friday off. They were not expected to work longer hours as a result, it wouldn’t impact their holiday allowance and their salary remained the same. As part of our new policy we also introduced ‘Deep Work Wednesdays’ to keep meetings to a minimum and encourage the team to be as productive as they could be, week on week. But, unlike a 4-day week, a 9-day fortnight meant those in customer-facing roles could remain in sync, productivity levels could be more easily maintained and, because the extra days were less frequent, we felt they were more likely to be respected, and so enjoyed.

Our approach won’t be right for everyone but it demonstrates the principle that companies should not see the 4-day work week as a mandate. Rather they should embrace its spirit and look at solutions which work for them and which genuinely will improve productivity, engagement and wellbeing.

A very happy result of the pandemic has been the way it has dismantled traditional working structures which are no longer serving us as a society. But the right response mustn’t be to replace a 9 to 5 format with another blanket formula for everyone. Successful companies will tailor their own unique approaches for their industries and for their teams. And at an even more granular level within the teams themselves – with different policies and approaches for new mums, parents, younger team members and those who are informal carers. This might look like a 9-day fortnight rather than a 4-day week. Or, different seasonal hours. Or, complete flexibility on when and where employees can work.

Working structures and working locations should feel as diverse as the products and services different businesses offer. Only then will we find solutions which actually work commercially and personally.

Ben Gateley is CEO and Co-Founder of CharlieHR, a service which offers on-demand HR advice and HR software for thousands of UK SMEs.

Rebecca Grewcock

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