There has been a noticeable change in perspective in recent months – understandably, given the circumstances – from employee wellbeing being viewed as a fringe benefit, to being seen as a fundamental need.
The number of people experiencing burnout as a result of their work is rising, with presenteeism, absences and lack of fulfillment at work reaching deeply concerning levels. This may be behind a surge in interest and public debate about reducing the working week.
The idea was for us all to become less concerned about clocked hours, and focus more on what we did with the hours we had.
It seems that the Covid-19 outbreak has made us all more aware of another pandemic that has been brewing for many years – stress through over work.
The widespread adoption of the five-day working week can be traced back to 1928, when carmaker Henry Ford introduced a five-day working week for his employees, setting the rhythm of the eight-hour workday.
Prior to that, six days a week or more had been the norm. A lot has changed since 1928, however. And given our experiences over the past 18 months, many of us have been left feeling mentally exhausted in a complex, always-on work environment. Almost a century since the last big shift in working patterns, therefore, the widespread consensus is that it’s time to shift again.
A simple Google search for ‘four day working week’ returns a considerable 198 million results. In comparison, ‘five day working week’ returns 140 million results. These are dominated by content on how the 40-hour work week originated, why in the 21st century it is perhaps no longer appropriate, and some fierce adherence to the five-day office working week’s return being good for all.
The definition given for this working pattern is an ‘arrangement’ between employer or school and employees or pupils, where ‘attendance’ is spread over four days rather than the customary five. Four-day working weeks are often additional to flexible working schemes, but not at the detriment of employee pay. That said, we have heard of schemes where people voluntarily work fewer days for less pay at times of extreme financial hardship for the company.
The remote, dispersed, virtual way of working seen since pandemic lockdowns has proven that for knowledge work, physical attendance at a place of work is not necessary. Space occupancy research from all manner of think-tanks and corporate real estate providers points to around 50% utilisation pre-pandemic. Offices were almost always half-empty already – we just didn’t really notice it.
A focus on wellbeing
At PTHR, we never had an office, nor do we plan to have one. We operate on a digital-first, work-from-anywhere basis as part of our flexible working ethos. We’ve just completed a year of operating a four-day week in that manner, and therefore extol the virtues of what has worked so well for us. As we are starting to see, it also works well for others – many of whom are much larger than we are.
As a micro-consultancy (12 people all working flex patterns), we are guided by principles that steer us toward our mission of enabling ‘better business for a better world’. We operate with eight guiding principles, and principle five is relevant to this topic:
- “A culture of wellbeing, care and respect for difference that creates regenerative energy for people in the workplace”.
The adoption of a four-day working week in its purest form should, in our opinion, be one that exists not to reduce cost, nor define work as being physically present, but rather it is founded on the principle of being effective and good for wellbeing.
PTHR’s founder, Perry Timms’ second book, The Energized Workplace, talks about the need for a balanced life. In a balanced life, we measure energy, not just time investment, and we accept the blurring of lines between our professional and personal existences.
Those lines have been blurred more than ever over the last two years. The loss of life we’ve seen during the Covid-19 pandemic has been tragic, but some good could yet come of the situation if we heed the impetus to reset how we live and work going forward.
Case study: PTHR
PTHR was hard-hit during the early days of the pandemic responses. We experienced Zoom fatigue, we felt the tensions of being parents and professionals at the same time, and were affected by the health anxiety sweeping the globe. We were battling to recover lost work and took a decision to build a new range of products and services that reflected the times we were in and headed towards. The development of this range required some extra graft, but with the product ready to go, we needed a rest.
Our CEO Perry took some time to pause and reset, and he decided we all needed this. The punctuation of the working week was something Perry believed would help us re-energise. The idea was for us all to become less concerned about clocked hours, and focus more on what we did with the hours we had. By pairing our need to recharge with a somewhat progressive ‘punctuated’ working pattern, PTHR’s Wellness Wednesday was born in July 2020. We agreed to trial this with no financial detriment to anyone.
What is Wellness Wednesday?
Quite simply, it’s the day we stop, and punctuate the week, to do whatever is good for the soul. We deliberately call ours a ‘four-day operating week’ as we can dip in and out of light work if we desire to do so. Typical activities for the team during Wellness Wednesday have been yoga, reading, running, studying, painting, life admin and family time, to name but a few.
- Wednesday over Friday: we had an anonymous survey (even though we’re a small team) six months in that affirmed we were feeling more energised, and that the choice of the mid-week punctuation was the right one. On Thursdays, we felt more invigorated than before. The option to consider a Friday for a long weekend was rejected.
- Condensed, but just as present: our clients are vital to us, as are their reactions to our availability for meetings with them. We are lucky that our clients have been supportive and even intrigued, to such an extent that we have had messages of apologies when clients get in touch on a Wednesday. Ask our clients if they feel any negative impact in our adjusted hours – we are confident they will say they do not.
- More focused: our productivity has not been compromised. We know this as we measure time spent on projects and energy felt through our resource allocation tracking. We have our biggest ever project stack, yet handle this across less hours, proving it’s about energy and focus, not purely hours clocked.
- A stronger, healthier culture: we have bonded more, despite being on the clock for fewer hours. We are more brutal about unnecessary internal meetings (using asynchronous methods like video recording relays and handoffs over video calls). We also share more on our digital platforms about how we feel, not just what we’re working on. We have not had any days off sick and we share openly if we’re starting to feel de-energised.
We are committed to continuous monitoring of the benefits and pulse checking.
Idiosyncrasies and lessons learned
- Be pragmatic not dogmatic: sometimes client support is needed on a Wednesday, and that is ok, so we occasionally ‘keep the lights on’ on a Wednesday.
- Work it pro-rata: we have a variety of working patterns. For those of us on fewer flex hours, we still have proportionate wellness time.
- Be mindful of childcare choices: we have one colleague who recently had to opt for working on a Wednesday due to restrictions on childcare options. So instead they had a ‘feel-good Friday’ with their young son.
Our four-day operating week started as a trialled response to a period of hard graft, and it is now integral to the way we operate. There are certainly further considerations beyond our experience at PTHR, for example in service led industries where there is client demand seven days a week. Furthermore, in larger teams there may need to be different options for different teams, depending on pressures and individual circumstances.
Beyond the benefits to employee wellbeing, a reduced working week unsurprisingly reduces carbon footprint – but that is a conversation for another time! For now, at PTHR, we are proud to be Gold-accredited four-day week employers, and we continue to review, adapt and reset, if required.
As a small team we can decide and change at pace. Since then, however, we have seen the four-day working week successfully trialled and adopted in large multinationals and even at country level.
Iceland’s four-day week adoption has been declared an overwhelming success, with a four-year long experiment in public sector workplaces resulting in benefits such as reduced stress levels and fewer incidences of burnout, while maintaining productivity. The experiment has resulted in the adoption of reduced hours for the same pay by 86% of the workforce. By starting small, Iceland has taken its time to trial what is possible, and then gradually extrapolate the system and benefits.
By publicly pioneering this approach to a balanced life, Iceland has paved the way for other countries to trial this, with Spain following suit. The United States Congress currently has a bill for a four-day working week recognition and adoption. In addition, Unilever in New Zealand has given its employees the option of reducing hours by 20% with no negative impact on salary.
The 4 Day Work Week campaign, is a collective that promotes and supports organisations adopting a shorter working week. We are proud to have received their Gold Standard Employer status. With many countries trialing this way of working, the five-day working week is likely to become a relic of the past industrial era.
Interested in this topic? Read How more widespread flexible working could improve equality.