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The Four Day Week – It’s simply not that straight forward!

There’s been many recent articles in the press concerning the fantastic outcomes of the “four day week” trials in Iceland claiming that they were an “overwhelming success”. Much of this is due to the publication of a report just publish by Alda, an Icelandic organisation and Autonomy, a think tank promoting the shorter working week. However, if you delve a little further and look at what is really in the report there is actually little mention of the much hyped “four day week”. In fact, a quick search within the document will see it mentioned only twice in the 82-page document and even these are in the introduction explaining the “four day week” is in fact a pseudonym for reduced working hours without a reduction in pay. This may be valid in its own right but the hype and the headline grabbing ability is lost.

Every Friday Off? “the four day week” is in fact a pseudonym for reduced working hours without a reduction in pay

The trials were within Reykjavik’s city authorities and the BSRB trade union between 2015 and 2019 in which workers moved from a 40-hour week to a 36 or 35 hour week. It is certainly nothing to be dismissed as it encompassed over 2500 staff covering more than 1% of the country’s working population. Working fewer hours, with greater well-being, while keeping performance and productivity standards - this was undoubtedly a success story and has led to the majority of Iceland’s working population now working shorter hours. However, it did not really include the aspiration of many headline readers of wanting every Friday off!

It actually involved many different formats and shift pattern changes, for example some police investigative officers worked shorter hours one week and longer hours the next to maintain office cover.

The outcome was successful in the provision of a better work life balance and in most cases, although not all, at no cost increase. This was greatly assisted within the working day by …

  • Better prioritisation of tasks
  • Better delegation
  • Fewer and more focussed meetings
  • Break reduction, or staggered breaks to maintain service
  • More lean management processes

… to name a few of the methods.

So, is that it? Why not use these methods to increase productivity without reducing hours?

A good question and no doubt to some extent this would work, but to help motivation and work life balance you can look back to another trial from 2018, in this case testing a true “four day week”. Perpetual a company in New Zealand carried an eight-week trial for 240 staff and sought to test productivity, motivation, and output by changing the work model to give every staff member a paid day off each week. Staff worked 30 hours but were paid for 37.5 whilst being asked to deliver the same amount of output as in the previously standard week.

Christine Brotherton, their Head of People and Capability said of the trial, "If employees are engaged with their job and employer, they are more productive. The trial was a valuable and timely way to test our theory that efficiencies will come with more staff focus and motivation.”

Again, the results of the test showed an unquestionable success with reduced staff stress levels increased productivity and workplace efficiency.

This company and other experts had looked at the trends of GDP per hour worked for a number of major countries and compared them with the trends of annual hours of work and seen an interesting correlation. They understood that there may well be many other factors at work, such as low investment in the economic climate, but it still remains that they saw a suggestion that more hours worked per employee in the year delivered poorer productivity.

Working fewer hours may therefore help increase productivity but also probably even more important than this is the effect it has on health and safety. There has been much research exploring the health problems connected with long hours.

These include:

  • General Fatigue
  • Rise in heart complaints
  • Back injuries
  • Increased blood pressure
  • An escalation in mental health issues
  • In women, a reduction in birth weights of their children
  • Higher alcohol consumption
  • Higher suicide rates

These health problems are not only of great importance to the individual they also may lead to an increase in absenteeism. If these absences need covering, then they may cause additional overtime to be required from others……making the problem self-perpetuating.

But will reducing working hours increase productivity in all areas?

The answer is undoubtedly, no.

If you think of many public facing activities, for example receptionists, shop workers as well as production line operatives and many others their time of work is directly related to the opening or operating hours. Less easy to measure but equally as valid are caring professions where time of interaction with say patients can define the perceived quality of the interaction, notwithstanding some of the productivity increasing measures mentioned earlier that may help.

Reducing from 5 to 4 days a week in cases such as these would simply require an uplift in staff to maintain the hours of operation. Thus a likely significant increase in costs, even taking into account lower absenteeism and improved morale.

Even in cases where the reduction in working hours may be of help any system or limit on hours must be carefully implemented as businesses rarely run on an even keel. There may be unexpected events caused by a number of reasons or known seasonality. Only when the real demand profile is understood can a more appropriate way of working be considered and evaluated. A good methodology is to

Remember:

  • Plan work patterns with as much information as possible
  • Ensure known and possible short-term peaks and troughs are understood can be matched
  • Longer term seasonality should also be matched - This may mean that at some times of the year hours may be longer than other times
  • However the demand is met, long hours worked can be reduced through maintaining a good record of hours worked by each individual and ensure that they balance across all relevant employees

There are a multitude of working arrangements that range from flexitime to annualised hours that rely on banks of hours to allow different shift lengths to be worked in different periods of the year, month or day. Flexitime is generally seen as a form of working aimed more towards helping employee flexibility but with care schemes can be designed to work with matching business demands as well. The best schemes will help both.

In reality, it is essential that you simply don’t look at the headline and say we want to implement a 4 day week for our staff. Even ignoring that in most cases the headline of the “four day week” has been misleading, every business is unique and consequently any flexible working arrangements not only need to be developed taking account of the working time requirements of the employee, but this needs to be examined and tailored alongside the demands and requirements of each organisation or even individual operating unit.

For more information on flexible working, annualised hours or managing your workforce more efficiently, please contact us on info@crownwfm.com

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