Work and Wellbeing · 23 December 2019

3 reasons why flexible working beats the four-day workweek

flexible working

For many of us, the four-day working week is little more than a very distant dream. Needless to say, an extra day of leisure is a pleasing concept but the question is: would we still be able to get our work done with one less day in the office? Or would less time mean a frantic scramble and big headaches?

The 32-hour proposal announced by Shadow chancellor John McDonnell has brought the conversation back into focus, and conflicting opinions on the topic continue to resurface. According to the proposal, Labour intends to sweeten the deal by ensuring no loss of pay over the next decade.

Politics aside, it’s a good opportunity for us to weigh up the pros and cons and identify where businesses could potentially benefit from a shorter working week. So, what kind of practical steps can we take to put our best foot forward when it comes to productivity?

Step 1: Varying work patterns

less stress First and foremost, a better work-life balance is what we’re striving for. But it’s a careful balancing act in maintaining growth and profit at the same time. And it’s the fast-paced, high-intensity industries that could really benefit from a less stressed workforce.

There’s science to back this up. In simple terms, less stress equals more productivity. Our bodies and most importantly our brains function much better when our emotions are stable and consistent.

There have been countless studies into the way in which stress impacts performance and concentration – so what’s the point of working more hours if each hour is filled with anxiety attacks, emotional turbulence and brain fog?

For businesses, there’s potential that a shorter week introduced in stressful industries like financial services, for example, could increase employee productivity and could cultivate overall positive company culture.

This could mean increased profit and would also give brands a much better chance of improving staff retention – however, it could also risk ramping up stress around meeting deadlines and cutting corners to meet them.

Pressures around growth and meet increasing targets give many industries a ruthless attitude to work and how they treat their people. Although, if employees are physically unable to deliver the results because their bodies break down, what good is that for the business? What good is that for society?

Step 2: Culture is key

People are driving business, so people need to be the first priority. In the digital age, we’re in the company of artificial intelligence and robotics, but it’s still human employees who are responsible for profit margin and business success.

And if we must quantify it or measure it in numerical code, it’s worth considering that poor treatment of staff and poor workplace culture is costing the UK economy £23.6 billion a year according to our own research, The Culture Economy Report.

Ignoring culture problems is therefore incredibly short-sighted.

A surefire way of ensuring growth is by cultivating an open culture which is built on respect – if teams are made up of colleagues who are more like friends, they tend to take personal responsibility for jobs getting done, and this often builds seamless cooperation and consistency – which is what client services firms especially must bear in mind.

Money wasted on continually training new employees, investing in them, only for them to leave is an enormous waste of resource and budget spend. In short, some industries have been in the habit of treating their people as disposable tools that they can replace as and when necessary.

The extended leisure time from a shorter work routine could potentially have positive impacts on employee mental health and simultaneously increase productivity. But really, offering more leisure time rather than focusing on improving life during working hours doesn’t seem like it should be the top priority.

Instead, focusing on accommodating the needs and working style preferences of your staff should be top of every companies’ agenda.

Step 3: Motivation for money’s sake

Truthfully, what it really boils down to is communicating expectations to the workforce. One less day to manage your time and tasks could actually be quite anxiety-inducing for some employees, who might not want a shorter week.

And it’s crucial that those who haven’t even considered the time management element are made aware of the personal responsibility they have to get the job done on time.

These days, with all this technology at our fingertips, working remotely and flexibly is a reality.

However, some firms stubbornly sticking to traditional strict working expectations tend to impose a feeling of guilt around working from home if they do allow it, or just outright won’t consider integrating it into their work practices – which really doesn’t make sense.

Demonstrating a willingness to work around your employees and allowing them to work in the ways that suit them best is a great way to let your team know you trust them and acknowledge that they can fit life comfortably around work.

We shouldn’t be living to work, as the Chancellor pointed out. It won’t work for many ‘always-on’ client-facing industries but it’s worth at least having the conversation. What’s more, studies can back this up.

Fitting work into different time-frames instead of solid condensed hours is proven to have overwhelmingly positive impacts.

And while it’s not for everyone, businesses offering flexible working as an option are respecting and recognising that employees are real people with lives outside of office hours.

A phased approach to rolling out a flexible working programme is a good way to see how it fits with your company without completely overhauling current processes.

Positive staff wellbeing should be the fundamental aim of all businesses regardless of their revenue goals. Because it’s people who underpin success – we must allow them the space they need to create it.

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Jonathan Richards is the CEO of specialist HR software company, Breathe.

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