Four-day working weeks… Are they the future?

Neil Bradbrook is managing director of Falkirk-based Ahead Business Consulting

By Neil Bradbrook is Managing Director of Ahead Business Consulting

A COUPLE of weeks ago, Atom Bank announced that their staff were moving to a four-day working week with no loss of pay. Sounds great – but is it really?

Well – yes and no. It is a good step – but only a step – in the right direction. 

It is good, because it shows Atom Bank are thinking about their employees’ needs and are willing to make bold changes to address them. And four-day working weeks are great for many staff.  But as with many things, there is not a “one-size fits all” solution to this, and four-day weeks don’t suit – in fact may even disadvantage – many others.

Let’s consider the impact on different groups.

Think of young professionals. They often work long hours already, so benefitting from a three-day weekend is a great reward. Good for this group – I would have loved it earlier in my career – and many others. 

But now consider working parents. A four-day week naturally necessitates longer hours on the four days you work. Earlier starts and later finishes. But this is the exact opposite of what working parents need. 

The current 9-5 routine already creates tension at the start and end of every day trying to ensure drop off / collection on time and meeting work commitments. Extending this to 8.00-5.30, or 8.30-6.00 as the Atom days do, makes this even harder – if not impossible: few nurseries or after school clubs run beyond 6 pm.

Likewise, if someone suffers from physical or mental illness making them more prone to stress or fatigue, then a more intense compressed working week may not be the right solution. Nor may it be for those who have care commitments for other adults – aging parents for example.

The right solution is FLEXIBILITY. Allowing people to have control over creating the most effective working pattern for them is where the true value lies. 

Atom have reduced their week to 34 hours. Instead of setting a fixed working pattern for all, imagine staff were invited to determine the best pattern for them. Many people will choose the four-day working week, because the three-day weekend gives them the most value.  But working parents may choose almost the opposite and prefer to work 10-4 five days a week, making up their remaining hours in the evenings once the kids are in bed.

Atom Bank wasn’t the only noteworthy news item on this topic that week.

There was also the release of a seismic research paper on the benefits of flexible working. This came from the #FlexAppeal campaign founded by Anna Whitehouse (aka Mother Pukka) and supported by Sir Robert McAlpine. The report provided the first ever in-depth study into the financial benefits for businesses of flexible working.

Companies who offer flexible working reap huge financial rewards. 

These come from: reduced absenteeism; lower attrition – this saves the cost of new hires and natural lower productivity from new hires in year one; increased productivity from happier, more motivated staff; and lower wage inflation over time. Yes, people will happily forgo some income for greater work/life balance and flexibility.

Flexible working already contributes £37bn to the UK economy on an annual basis. 

Yet we are only scratching the surface. 

And we are all to blame. For too long we have fostered a culture of presenteeism. We have perpetuated a view that those who work the longest hours are therefore working the hardest and are our most valuable employees. In some industries people wear the long hours they work as a badge. 

Conversely therefore if we can’t see people working it creates the sense that they are not. Truly flexible working needs to bust this myth, otherwise you risk resentment within your workforce derailing positive change. It is not the hours that matter, but the quality of the output. 

We all know the adage that our staff are our greatest assets. Yet still most businesses are not doing enough for their people. All too often I hear employees talking about how much they give to their companies, and they just don’t get enough back. 

It becomes very transactional: I do this for a wage. But true performance comes from those who are invested in your business and believe in it. Where everything is a two-way street. 

If staff just work for a wage, then days off will happen. People will leave if someone else offers a higher amount. And productivity will be lower: people will do the necessary, but little more.  After all it is just a job.

If staff feel looked after; if they feel the company trusts them and gives back; if they feel part of a family and the business genuinely caters for their needs; then commitment, productivity and loyalty go through the roof. And your business will truly fly.

I heartily commend Atom Bank for their desire to provide better working patterns for their staff – we should all seek to follow their lead.  But don’t just go for a single solution – that will never work for everyone. Be flexible. Allow your staff to input into what they need. That is truly the future of work.

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