One of the positive impacts of the coronavirus pandemic is that it has moved the debate around flexible working forward much quicker than would have been the case in normal times.
While many employers have long talked about offering flexibility and working patterns tailored to employee needs, for a high percentage of them, the enforced lockdowns and restrictions on movement were the first time those offers were tested and, for a lot of them, proven to work well.
It is no surprise then that, with the focus on a healthy work-life balance and wellbeing, even more radical concepts than working from home are now being asked for by employees and explored by employers. Among them is the idea of a four-day working week, where people would spread work across four days, rather than the traditional Monday to Friday.
Four-day working weeks have been trialled in a number of countries in recent years and the results have generally been seen as encouraging, showing the shorter week boosted employee productivity and reduced stress.
In Iceland a trial by Reykjavik’s City Council went so well that it has been reported that eight in 10 employees have moved to working four days a week. And in California, a bill is being discussed by state legislators that proposes to reduce the official working week from 40 hours to 32 for companies with more than 500 employees.
Between June and December, more than 3,000 workers at 60 UK companies will be involved in a pilot run by Oxford and Cambridge universities to test whether a four-day week with no loss of pay can achieve higher productivity and improve wellbeing. Campaigners say executives who want to retain workers should embrace a new model of work focused on quality of outputs, not quantity of hours.
Data from Hays Quarterly Insights Survey indicates it is an approach that would attract talent, with 53% of professionals across the UK saying they would be tempted to move to an organisation that offers a four-day working week – in Northern Ireland this jumps to 62%.
When we asked what a four-day week would have the most beneficial impact on, employees in NI overwhelmingly identified improved mental health and wellbeing (75%), followed by a smaller number who cited organisational productivity (7%), talent attraction (7%) and talent retention (4%).
Some 59% of employers also pointed to the mental health benefits but 13% hoped it would increase productivity, 12% thought it would help them retain talent and 11% believed it would attract talent.
However, only 3% of employers in Northern Ireland told us they have introduced a four-day working week and 2% are trialling it. In our survey 16% of employers said they are considering implementing it but 53% were clear they aren’t considering such a move, and 26% said they can’t consider it due to the demands of their business or sector.
As to when we might see this shorter week become a reality throughout the world of work, it seems like most people aren’t holding their breath for sweeping changes in the short term – although those surveyed in Northern Ireland were more optimistic.
Among employers, 38% said a four-day week would never happen (27% in NI), 25% said it would take five to 10 years (27% in NI), 27% expected change in two to five years (32% in NI) and only 10% anticipated a move in the next one to two years (14% in NI).
Amongst the employees surveyed, 35% don’t believe it will become a reality (30% in NI), 21% said it might within five to 10 years (25% in NI), 27% thought it could come in within two to five years (29% in NI) and 17% expected a move within one to two years (16% in NI).
Unless it is introduced by law, the introduction of a four-day week will be a decision for each individual employer and will be easier for some to introduce than others. But the fact that it is now being discussed seriously shows just how important a factor wellbeing has become.
John Moore is managing director of Hays NI