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The Hidden Cost of the Four-Day Working Week

Employees want flexibility but the four-day working week isn’t necessarily the answer, as senior recruitment expert Huw Martin warns it is not a bandwagon suitable for all businesses.

The pandemic created a sea of change in terms of where and how we work and workers are rightly calling for more flexibility, a better work-life balance, and more choice in deciding when, where, and how best to do their jobs. So is the four-day week the natural next step as we move towards a fully flexible workforce? Or are organisations forgoing flexibility and nurturing workplace culture to capitalise on the buzzword of the moment?

The world’s biggest trial of the four-day working week has begun, with more than 3,300 workers at 70 UK companies taking part, including the Royal Society of Biology, Yo Telecom, and Helping hands, making the idea of a four-day working week a hot topic of conversation.

Like most businesses, we have discussed the idea of implementing a four-day week in length. And it’s not without its merits; previous trials have shown the benefits to range from increased productivity, reduced costs for both employers running the office and employees who commute, and an improvement in both the physical and mental health of employees.

However, it’s important to recognise that flexibility doesn’t just relate to the number of working days, it also covers location, working hours, and work patterns.

In a move towards being a fully flexible and hybrid employer, we focus on our employees’ outputs and commitments. If our team can manage their outputs and deliver on their commitments, they can work anywhere they like. We don’t specify set days or times they need to be in the office.

This ability to be fully flexible is crucial as the war on talent rages on in what continues to be a competitive candidate-driven market. Offering flexibility like this broadens the reach to more applicants and widens the talent pool to create a more diverse and skilled workforce.

There is a widespread concern as to whether this flexibility will be prioritised as much with the four-day working week. If clear parameters aren’t outlined, this poses a risk to staff morale as your employees attempt to squeeze the same amount of work into a shorter week.

Risks from a people management point of view include staff stress and burnout of employees working outside the agreed hours to ensure their outputs are still met which is counterproductive to the trial’s aims to improve work-life balance. Without appropriate implementation, your employees could become disengaged or even feel disgruntled with the forced reduction of days.

In the IT market, what we’re seeing day in and day out, isn’t candidates looking for roles that offer a four-day working week, but rather roles that offer complete flexibility and often, the option to work full time from home.

It’s not a ‘one size fits all’ approach and there’s a concern with the four-day week that there’s less freedom to make your work schedule fit your life. The logistics of whether the company closes for a set day of the week, or there becomes a rota system, all suddenly start to feel more restrictive and don’t reflect the adaptable working pattern we were all taking steps towards.

From a business leader’s perspective, the costs of implementing a four-day week for small to medium-sized businesses are disproportionate to the commercial benefits it may bring. In companies such as ours, where at least a fifth of our staff already work part-time hours, the cost of boosting their wage alone would be material.

When it’s never been more important to retain talent, that money could be put towards the development of our existing staff, training courses, and increased benefits. In an economy where talent shortages are rife and retaining staff is a critical business priority, it’s important to ensure that any changes to working patterns are delivering against the needs of individuals, as well as the company.

Only time will tell how successful this trial will be, but regardless of the outcome, it will surely be a critical moment for the future of work. If it’s successful, it’s undeniable that more businesses would be motivated to implement this structure.

However, for many, the motivation is simply not enough and if an organisation cannot afford it or it doesn’t suit the parameters of their industry, then businesses need to be open to other ways of attracting and retaining talent.

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