A four day week is no panacea to the structural challenges of Britain’s workforce
For years, there has been an ongoing discussion about the four-day working week. In the 2019 election, then-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn even put cutting the number of days we work at the centre of his manifesto. This week trials for a four day week will begin with 30 companies trying it out in the hope of ensuring greater productivity, improved/work life balance, reduced burnout and increased staff retention. As the world faces a global resignation wave, the stakes have never been higher.
The natural reaction is a positive one. Instantly, people come in talking up the inevitable benefits for employees and their work/life balance. But, as with anything, a blanket policy is never one which works for all industries, let alone all employees. For many, one day less at work could lead to increased anxiety and stress as the result of having the same amount of work to do, but less time to get it done. It could mean people wind up working on their day off because things have to get done and there was no time during the week, blurring the line between work and life even more.
Just like any change, it will suit some and alienate others.
Employees must be the number one priority when implementing changes such as this one. Any decision that is made must be made from organisation to organisation, and it will require an in depth look at the needs of staff and how that transition will be managed. For many industries such as finance which work with people and on deals across the globe, a four day week would put the UK at a competitive disadvantage. While it may attract workers from overseas and increase our talent pool, it may, in the long term, dent the attractiveness of London as an international city.
It may seem obvious, but companies should not implement a drastic work change blindly because it is a trend gaining traction. Even the most glittery plans have sharp edges which must be worked out. Any changes need to be an ongoing conversation between management and employees. As we have seen with working from home, many companies who scrapped their office presence are now having to renegotiate how their staff work retrospectively.
If this really is about staff wellbeing, there must be an extensive forum of discussion to address the myriad of issues which will arise for different people. The Great Resignation has shown us just how delicate an employment relationship can be. Some figures estimate up to a quarter of employees in the UK are planning to move jobs within the next few months; it is more important than ever for organisations to make their employees feel valued and secure. Sectors such as law are struggling to keep young talent because they do not understand the needs of their staff. They are working off of the back of outdated working practices.
The new and evolved workforce is influential, dynamic and ambitious. It needs quick solutions, fast responses, and real-time information. Therefore, it is up to employers to manage changes in the workforce effectively, while strengthening wellbeing within the company.
Yes, the four day working week could be a positive change for some. But it isn’t a silver bullet. It will not resolve many of the underlying problems facing our workforce and, if anything, could worsen them. Any kind of workforce change is going to be a steep learning curve and organisations must give employees a voice in the conversation.