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May 20, 2020

The 4 day working week: How the Coronavirus pandemic has reignited the debate.

SETTING THE SCENE

 

For people across the world, the Coronavirus pandemic has created unparalleled disruption upon the ways in which we work. The outcomes of the situation we find ourselves in are immeasurable, and the fallout will be analysed for years to come. But there is one debate I would like to address that has recently resurfaced: the 4 day working week (4DWW). 

As a theory, it is rather simple: shorten the working week to 4 days, but without a resulting reduction in pay – sounds good, right? Advocates have long heralded the potential benefits a 4DWW could have upon a business and its people: reduced anxiety levels, greater job satisfaction and increased productivity to name a few. And yet the potential move to a 4DWW has seemed a pipedream for the most part, a rather optimistic longing for the UK to relax just a little bit. 

However, the UK government’s furlough scheme has created a situation in which it is now being tested more widely than ever before. Unless you have been living under a rock for the last couple of months, you will know that the government is paying 80% of the salaries of staff who have been furloughed. As a result, some businesses who have made use of the scheme, have also imposed 20% pay cuts on those continuing to work, and are working one less day a week to validate this. Hence, through a somewhat unexpected turn of events, the 4DWW is now being trialed in companies across the country, including Pink Squid.

WHAT IS THE STORY SO FAR?

 

Previous 4DWW experiments have proven insightful. Perpetual Guardian in New Zealand ran a trial allowing each employee to choose a day to have off each week. Employee satisfaction grew massively as a result, workers were more engaged, less stressed, and the scheme was rolled out permanently. Similarly, in Microsoft’s Japan office, workers were given 5 Fridays off in a row. In this case, meetings became more efficient, the number of sick days went down and 92% preferred the shorter week. Whilst promising, there were downsides to consider as well. Participants from both studies reported feeling more stressed at times, as they struggled to get everything completed with one less day. Certainly, when practiced incorrectly, a 4DWW can lead to a compressed workweek – characterised by longer hours over fewer days. Unfavourable consequences such as these highlight the importance of implementing the system correctly. 

Indeed, each business must think carefully about how a 4DWW would work best for employees and customers alike. As discussed earlier, Perpetual Guardian gave employees the choice of day to take off, while Microsoft essentially closed their offices on Fridays. This disparity shows that the concept can be flexible, which is important because some solutions will suit certain businesses more than others. Businesses will need to assess their own situation thoughtfully, before enforcing any major changes.

The next big question is whether companies are actually going to stick with a 4DWW once the furlough scheme has finished. The answer to this will likely be determined by one tangible measure – profit. At both Perpetual Guardian and Microsoft, employee productivity increased by over 20%, revenue remained flat, and operating costs fell, which meant both companies experienced a boost to margin, and realised the benefits of a 4DWW in monetary terms. On the other hand, government intervention could make the 4DWW compulsory. The Labour Party made it part of their 2019 manifesto, with a pledge for the UK to have migrated to this new format by 2029. Clearly, policy like this would have a huge influence, and would make this debate one for the House of Commons to rule on.

WHAT DOES THE FUTURE LOOK LIKE?

 

At this point, it is difficult for me to speculate as to the success of the experiments that are currently being run across the country. However, I can comment on my own experience at Pink Squid. As a business, we are currently not working on Fridays, which means every weekend feels that little bit more restful. The work we are producing is of the same high standard as it always has been, and I feel more refreshed than I have in a long time. Generally, I like to set deadlines and delivery for Thursdays rather than Fridays, so the loss of one day a week has not been as much of a change as I thought it would be. Obviously it is hard to compare things now to how they were before, but I have absolutely seen and experienced some of the benefits a 4DWW can bring to a company and its people. The question is whether such a system is still viable in a post-Covid economy that is supposed to be supercharged and on the rebound. We expect to be very busy once the world starts to get back to normal – will I still feel quite so refreshed then? Will I miss having the extra day?

Overall, it is fair to say that the benefits a 4DWW can bring are unquestionable. People perform better when they are happy and for the most part, people are happier when spending less time in the office. A work-life balance is something candidates have always looked for, and a 4DWW may become something that is actively sought after. But it’s about more than just wellbeing. Businesses perform better when its people are more productive. And in a world where churn is high and retention is king, perhaps the 4DWW could be the key to greater employee satisfaction. Only time will tell if businesses continue to trial working one less day after COVID-19, but at the very least, we will have a lot more insight to stoke the debate with.

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