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How a four-day work week could work in practice

By Jacqui O’Callaghan, Senior HR/ER Consultant at hr inspire.

Working patterns have undergone a significant transformation in the last 12-months. The pandemic has caused a shift in how companies approach the working week, with 50 of the largest UK employers already planning to adopt a more agile or hybrid way of working full-time.

PWC recently told staff they could spend half their working time at home and finish early on a Friday, and now organisations like Arup are allowing staff to flex their hours across a seven-day week, and it seems these organisations are not alone. A recent study has revealed that more than a million British companies employing 3m workers could move to a four-day work week post-pandemic.

Morrisons announced last year that it was to trial a four-day work week at its headquarters in Bradford to become more flexible and responsive, and a company where “more people will want to join – and stay.”

While flexible working patterns can result in increased productivity and wellbeing for HR – a profession that has recently suffered a 70% increase in stress-related absences, changes to the traditional workplace will bring additional complexities and challenges for people managers and business leaders.

The impact on workplace culture

From the conversations we at hr inspire are having with businesses, some are running staff surveys to gauge feedback, or are having informal chats to find the consensus among teams. The case for a more agile or hybrid approach to working is strong, and feedback from employees demonstrates an appetite to retain some of the newfound improvements in work/life balance that the pandemic has brought.

However, there is also a feeling that there is a gap in the work/life experience, with many reporting missing the all-important team cohesion and social aspect to working in the office. The new challenge for many businesses is therefore to strike the right balance.

With the Covid-19 pandemic reigniting debates around flexible working and how employers can offer a way of working that maximises productivity and maintains employee engagement, one approach has been the trialling of four-day work weeks. Microsoft Japan found that the move to a four-day work week resulted in a 40% boost to productivity, and New Zealand firm Perpetual Guardian identified that 78% of employees felt they could more effectively balance their work and home life following the adoption of a shorter working week.

Research has also found that 87% of the UK’s full-time workers either currently work flexibly or would like to do so, with millennial workers (aged 18-34) favouring this approach in particular. Though a four-day work week may improve retention and help to strike the right work/life balance for many, the impact on the business and employees themselves should be carefully assessed. It should also be noted that compressing hours or making any fixed changes to the work week will ultimately have contractual implications.

Challenges to the four-day work week

Some companies are going beyond hybrid working by offering even more agile options that give workers a decision over the hours they work. But making any permanent change to working hours will mean changes to Terms & Conditions in employment contracts.

British workers are already working longer hours because of the pandemic, and the introduction of a four-day work week model could see a reality of employees working the same hours over a shorter period – risking breaching working time directives, impacting stress levels, and having a negative overall effect on productivity.

Companies need to ensure the correct HR policies are in place and that employment contracts are reviewed, so that they reflect current employment law and best practice. Shorter work weeks may also require changes to how annual leave is managed, so HR teams may find it more practical to break down annual leave into hours rather than days as a more efficient way to manage these changes.

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The four-day work week will also not be suitable for every business model, particularly for some SMEs that require a 5-to-7-day operation. It may be that SMEs therefore need to explore alternative options in the arena of agile or hybrid working.

More flexible and agile alternatives

To strike the right balance and avoid the added complexities of contractual changes, businesses could adopt a more agile approach to flexible working. Changes to work hours and flexible working requests can result in permanent fixed arrangements, but truly agile or hybrid working is intended to be non-contractual, allowing fluidity.

Many companies are happy to introduce a more blended office/home approach to working especially as the ‘work from home where you can’ message remains in place. But hybrid working can only extend to roles where this is permissible, as many job roles will require more time spent in an office like call centre or customer facing staff.

Before agreeing any changes to working arrangements, businesses must assess if the changes are right for the business long term. Then set parameters and have these fed down through their executive teams. For example, if you are adopting a blended way of working, ensure managers are splitting their time fairly between the office and their home. Like PWC, you could introduce a 60:40 split in the office/homeworking, so all members of the team clearly know what is expected of them, helping you to ensure there is a crossover with teams to help drive collaboration and consistency.

For companies that are unable to adopt a hybrid approach, consider offering employees some flexibility over start and finish times or allowing time for other commitments. This will help give them some control over their work/life balance, particularly for those employees who are working parents or carers.

However, a note of caution where agile working is adopted, the emphasis must be on fluidity, i.e. that the working pattern can vary from week to week. Where a particular working pattern becomes the norm, the risk is that this will become ‘custom and practice’ and therefore become a permanent contractual arrangement. Where an employee requires a permanent arrangement, a formal Flexible Working request should be submitted.

Tools and considerations for agile working

However you approach agile working, your employees should be equipped with the right tools to do their tasks efficiently from wherever, and whenever, they are working.

It is important to have a digital workplace that supports different styles of working, gives leaders visibility of who is in the office, and enables organisations to maintain a culture of togetherness even when apart. All employees should be able to access the system while keeping some aspects confidential and support your specific business arrangement to enable a fully functioning and agile workplace. Consider using desk booking technology, like Flex Desk, to enable efficient staff planning.

Other considerations should be given to the Health & Safety of workstations, learning lessons from the pandemic. Many businesses adopted a hot-desking system to house employees safely throughout restrictions, but it is essential you are being compliant by conducting regular health and safety risk assessments in the office and are ensuring home workers are aware of written policies in place, whilst checking there is the right equipment available for anyone to do their job at any desk and location.

It is also important to include a clause in employees’ contracts that allows you access to their homes to ensure it is suitable for homeworking from a H&S point of view. Employers have a responsibility to ensuring the safe working of all employees, including by PAT testing electrical equipment, and providing access to appropriate desks and chairs.

Whatever flexible working solutions your company offers, it is important to keep an open mind to establish a fair balance to facilitate a productive work environment that prioritises employee wellbeing.

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