I co-founded my business while I was at uni. I know how valuable it is to have the flexibility to navigate work and personal life. I’ve lost count of how many weird and wonderful hours I’ve worked – in the early days squeezing lectures in around getting the business off the ground and leaving nights out with my mates early to be fresh for morning meetings to now where I’m about to spend the week in the US and juggle work commitments in both time zones.
This is why I find it perplexing that the confinement of a one-size-fits-all working pattern - which, by the way, is exactly what the four-day week is – is gaining so much hype.
There are plenty of arguments in favour of a four-day week. Major brands such asShake Shack and Microsoft have publicly endorsed and implemented a shorter working week, and some start-ups say introducing a four-day week is the best business decision they’ve ever made. Right now, the UK’s biggest four-day week trial is taking place, with the goal of gathering enough evidence to establish this new working pattern as a permanent part of professional life.
The narrative suggests that a four-day working week is somehow the holy grail of attracting staff, improved productivity, reduced burnout and the pathway towards a more sustainable work environment.
Unfortunately, beyond the headlines is a flawed concept which, at best, won’t deliver what you want it to – and at worst, could spell the downfall of your business.
Why? The idea of the four-day week is to compress five days of work into four days. The first problem with this approach is that inequality is likely to grow because compressing work in such a tidy fashion is a luxury only possible for a few. You won’t see bus drivers, hospital staff or care workers benefiting from this movement.
Even those with job roles that could allow a four-day week pattern will often find they can’t simply compress their hours into four longer days, week in, week out. For example, anyone who has a child doesn’t have the option to work consistent longer days. Unless childcare settings magically extend their opening hours it’s just not going to work.
Inevitably a divide will appear between those that do have adaptable lives and can have an extra day off each week, and those that don’t. Even among the most amicable of work teams, seeing colleagues having a three-day weekend while you’re still working, or holding the fort with a reduced team when they have the extra day off, could understandably become incredibly grating.
Secondly, unless you manage to sync up working days with every other business you work with, you’ll end up with work still coming in on that fifth day. And what’s meant to happen to it? Do the queries just go unanswered for 24 hours? Do other team members pick the work up, and then pass it back? Or, will we be faced with employees who check emails on the fifth day, in addition to already working their full weeks’ worth of hours? If it’s the latter, this is a road to burnout.
Even if people can successfully keep that fifth day completely free of work, we have to ask ourselves: is working longer days regularly, week in, week out, with little time to relax or recoup in the morning or evening, sustainable? This will depend on the individual, but for those of us who rely on downtime to keep us mentally and physically strong, it will be draining.
While the possible introduction of such a flawed concept in the UK is worrying, there’s nothing wrong with the sentiment behind the four-day week. The desire to give workers a better work-life balance is something we can all get behind – as well as the desire to improve the UK’s long-standing productivity slump.
The problem lies in trying to apply a ‘one size fits all’ approach, when everyone’s individual lives couldn’t be more different. Decades of research shows that flexibility is the number-one benefit that employees want - instead of a rigid four-day week, true flexible working is what’s really needed to boost worker satisfaction, increase productivity and provide a competitive advantage to your business.
For an individual employee, this might mean the flexibility to work four days a week, the option to work five days flexing your hours, or the chance to work in the early mornings and stop mid-afternoon if that’s prime productivity territory.
Ultimately, good things happen when you empower your staff. Most people don’t want their employer mandating a four-day week, a five-day week or any other week. Instead, they want clear goals, an opportunity to grow, and the chance to work hard to get great results, within a flexible framework that best suits their lives outside of work.