Star Interview

Could the four-day week solve covid?


Coronavirus has been the impetus for much change in the world of work, but could it push companies to take the next step into a wildly different working week?

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the 9-to-5 in an office, five days a week, was an essential synonym for working life in the UK. However, restrictions on work in 2020 have shaken working norms to the core – with many now working from spare bedrooms, home offices or sofas and kitchen counters – forcing many employers to question whether their structures of employment were the most efficient. Indeed, a lot of employers began to look closely at all aspects of working life, including the impact of 2020’s changes on employee wellbeing, and whether digital ways of working were a benefit or detriment to employee health.

And despite a four-day working week being a big topic for discussion in 2019, it seemed to fall off the wellbeing agenda in 2020 – despite employers increasingly looking for ways to manage the mental health of the workforce in what has been a stressful period and UK workers seeming to want one day less a week at work, according to a recent YouGov study.

The four-day working week isn’t just a thing of the future, it’s very much a realistic prospect and something employers should start to think about

Yet a four-day week seems an option that employers would be wise to consider – especially with workloads creeping up and increased flexibility wanted by workforces. An additional study from the CIPD noted that 60% of UK employees currently work longer hours than they see as fair, with 24% over-working by up to 10-hours a week. This is in stark contrast to 78% of employees who work on more flexible schedules and believe that it has had a positive impact on their lives.

For employers that did trial this approach, it has had had a positive impact. In November of 2018, a New Zealand-based firm Perpetual Guardian trialled the concept and found that productivity within the company shot up by 20%, whilst staff reported a vast increase in overall wellbeing as a result. Work-life balance scores also shot up from 54% to 78% whilst stress levels dropped to 38% from 45%; a number likely notable for HR practitioners who are currently seeing wellbeing levels drop as a result of the pandemic.

 

Technically, the team are working less hours but are far more effective

 

Additionally, research from Henley Business School found that reducing the working week from five to four days could save UK businesses an estimated £104bn a year, something that might catch the eyes of the executive as they battle an uncertain economic outlook. In fact, so appealing is this potential upswing across multiple business metrics that the New Zealand arm of consumer giant Unilever is currently poised to trial the concept this year,

Yet, does the uncertainty of the future business landscape mean that companies should be ignoring this concept and waiting for more data on its apparent success. Not so, according to Sam Hill, Head of People and Culture at property rental company Bizspace. Whilst the immediate effects of coronavirus may be taking up the majority of the current HR agenda, Hill says that the time to truly consider the viability of the concept is now.

I think society is always evolving and finding new ways to improve. The five-day working week was an improvement at the time from when people used to work six days a week. But now I think we're far more aware of the mental and physical strains that work has on employees

“The four-day working week isn’t just a thing of the future, it’s very much a realistic prospect and something employers should start to think about. If the change was managed correctly for businesses to still maintain the same level of output, which I think is very doable, then a four-day working week could be incredibly beneficial. It could benefit the mental health of a workforce and encourage more of a healthy work-life balance. In addition the wider benefits that this might have could be huge, for example, helping to reinvigorate the economy with an extra day on the weekend for consumers to spend,” he concludes.


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