A four-day work week? Sounds nice, but here’s the real deal

The Sydney Morning Herald Finance 2 weeks ago

Should your company move to a four-day working week, giving employees a day off for personal tasks and work/life balance, while retaining full pay.

Absolutely, you say. You would be happier, more productive and less stressed – and willing to repay your employer with loyalty and extra effort.

Compressing a company's work week won't necessarily boost productivity.

I’m all for four-day weeks if companies show it leads to sustained productivity gains, attracts and helps keep top talent, reduces sick days, enhances employee wellbeing, and a better employee experience translates to improved customer experience and sales.

implementing a four-day week trial led to a 40 per cent productivity boost in a Japanese subsidiary. Employers should take note: if such productivity gains are possible from working fewer days, more companies should adopt this model.

Alas, I suspect the four-day week will turn into a two-star idea for some companies and employees. At a minimum, greater debate on potential downsides and more evidence over longer periods is needed. Trials are not definitive.

Here are possible risks to consider before jumping on the four-day bandwagon:

1. It’s hard to undo

Workplace innovations have a habit of becoming conditions rather than benefits over time. Staff believe a four-day week is their right and heaven help companies that adopt the model then decide a few years later that everybody should work five days.

2. Four is still a chore

Some staff are never happy. A four-day week is still too much, so they push for three, or extra time in lieu or holidays. Goodwill towards their employer soon wears off and some employees believe they are still overworked and underpaid in a four-day week.

3. Four-day weeks by another name

Many employees already work a four-day week; it’s just not called that. We refer to it as “working from home”, even though much of the day is spent on personal tasks. There is nothing wrong with doing a full day’s work in the morning, free of distraction, and using spare time for yourself. But companies don’t need to give an extra day off for all staff, to achieve that.

4. How much workplace flexibility do we need?

I have lost count of corporate colleagues who buy extra weeks of leave each year; have access to a generous range of leave entitlements; have employers who let them take time off to see their kid’s school play, volunteer or care for sick relatives; or work from home. They don’t need an extra day off each week to do such things.

5. Less productivity

I can’t understand companies tacking the day off to a weekend, as Microsoft did in Japan by giving staff Fridays off. Having a long weekend every week is an invitation for some younger employees to party too hard, get into trouble and regret it on Monday. Surely it makes sense to have the day off mid-week, so staff use it for personal tasks, freeing their weekend up for relaxation rather than chores and errands.

6. Are longer working days a problem?

Some companies that move to a four-day week add an extra hour or two on the other days, assuming all staff can cope with the extra time. My guess is many do at the start, but over time feel worn down and stressed by working longer hours in those four days. Companies think they are spreading 38 hours across four days instead of five, but find they have unwittingly implemented a 30-hour workweek as some employees do less on the longer days.

7. VUCA

The future of business is greater Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity (VUCA). Not for all enterprises, of course, but markets generally will move faster and be more disrupted in the coming years. Giving your workforce the same extra day off each week is a risk in that context. I can’t imagine offshore competitors in Asia and other emerging markets doing that.

8. No pay rise for you

Another concern with the four-day week is companies use it to further dampen wages growth. You accept less to join the company because it offers a four-day work week (even though you still work the equivalent hours of five days). You ask for a pay rise and the company says no, believing the four-day week is a de facto pay rise. Some employees may be happy to trade wages growth for greater flexibility; others just want the cash.

9. I like my work

Many employees enjoy their job and collaborating with colleagues each day. The five-day working week provides routine and structure. Companies assume all employees want an extra day off when some find greater enjoyment from work. Yes, they can always work from home on that day, but it’s not the same for many employees as commuting to work.

10. What gets lost – part 1

Having to cram five days of week into four means that companies look to cut less urgent tasks. That’s good if it forces a ruthless axing of non-essential tasks. And bad if it means important tasks, such as training and development, are sidelined. It is harder to attend a full-day training course when you are only working four days and have less “bench-time” to play with.

Shortening the work week could mean axing important tasks as five days of work are crammed into four.

11. What gets lost – part 2

Customers. Proponents of the four-day week argue that happier, refreshed staff translate into happier customers and sales, and I’m sure it is true of many companies. But do I want my service provider having a skeleton staff mid-week, or none at all, when they already have crappy customer service?

12. Entrenched laziness

I get how a four-day week can help motivated employees juggle work, family and personal demands, and refresh and energise them. It can also be an excuse for lazy employees to do less and game the system. I never like standardised days off provided to all employees. It’s usually better to be flexible, allowing employees to take extra time when needed rather than implementing blanket rules that become business as usual and taken for granted.

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