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Four-day week: it’s not only where we work, but how we work that is changing

Over the past year, companies have adapted to new ways of working and the changing nature of the workplace. Now, as we ease out of the coronavirus pandemic, the focus has turned to the future of the work and whether employees will be office-based or working remotely – or a mix of the two.

But there is a wider impact which affects not only where we work but how. Smart companies are also looking at four-day weeks, employee wellbeing models and flexible benefits that reflect the way we work now.

What does this mean for business leaders and HR teams planning for the future?

The future of work is about more than just location

It seems that almost every day there is a new announcement from a huge corporation if and when their employees will return to the office. And despite comments by the chancellor that workers will leave if they are not allowed to work from the office, the reality looks very different, with 66% employees expecting flexibility about where they work.

But companies are also recognising that the changes begun by the pandemic have opened a wider conversation about how we work. As the Chief Executive of Nationwide, Joe Garner, said:

"The last year has taught many of us that 'how' we do our jobs is much more important than 'where' we do them from.”

A four-day working week? Changing working hours and days

Is a four-day work week really a viable option? If the last year has shown us anything, it's that significant changes to working methods can be implemented quickly and that older models of work may be more adaptable than initially thought.

It's perhaps with that in mind that Spain has recently announced a trial of a four-day working week. A shorter working week is becoming increasingly recognised as the future of work, with both New Zealand and Germany endorsing the possibility.

Back in the UK, the SNP have pledged that, if they were re-elected, they would provide 10m to support businesses offering staff a four-day week. Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell also mooted the idea in 2019, in recognition that UK employees work longer hours than the rest of Europe. And PwC have said they will offer employees a reduced working day on Fridays during July and August for employees who have condensed their working week. This is combined with the freedom to decide their working pattern each day.

PwC Chair, Kevin Ellis said that flexible working would be the norm rather than the exception. "We want our people to feel trusted and empowered. We want to help enshrine new working patterns so they outlast the pandemic. Without conscious planning now there’s a risk we lose the best bits of these new ways of working when the economy opens up again. The future of work is changing at such a pace we have to evolve continually how we do things to meet the needs of our people and our clients."

New research shows that PwC’s approach is not an anomaly: 18% of UK businesses are considering a change to a four-day work week. If those looking into this were to change their policy, 3 million workers would benefit from a reduced working week. It's estimated that nearly 300,000 SMEs already adopt this working model.

The flexibility in time should not only impact the days we work but the hours too. The traditional 9-to-5 day may be in many people's contracts but it doesn't represent the reality for many. And since the beginning of the pandemic, data shows that 30% of employees are working longer hours than when they were based in the office. 

In addition, many businesses and employees have found that they now have a more global remit, as digital advancement has opened up new markets. The move to remote working also offers the opportunity to widen the talent pool and recruit the best candidate wherever they may live, which in turn means that the workforce may be based across multiple timezones and communicating outside core hours.

In the UK, working hours are not legislated by day but by week, via the 1998 Working Time Regulations. Employers therefore have opportunities to adapt core hours to suit the realities of working life. 

While this may look like the end of the traditional 9 to 5, businesses will need to check the viability of this approach and the outcome is likely to vary based on a number of factors, including:

  • Industry
  • Client / customer expectations
  • How, when and where people access the services
  • The size of the team and the number of people in each role
  • Whether the business closes or working days are variable across the team

Even if businesses cannot move to a four-day week, offering a flexible approach to working can still be considered.  

The wider impact on incentives and employee benefits

All of these changes to working time have a significant impact on recruitment and retention. 

Companies who can offer flexibility or even a four-day week are likely to experience positive brand perceptions and may find it easier to attract top talent. Recent data showed that 80% of companies thought a clear employee value proposition (EVP) had a positive impact on recruitment, while 78% thought it improved engagement and 72% felt it helped with retention. 

This reflects an overall recognition that rewards and benefits fit with a new way of working. As far back as May 2020, research showed that 42% of employers were planning significant changes to their benefit programmes.

New research showed that 91% of employers believe that their employees' expectations of their experience at work was changing. The data showed an increased emphasis on mental health (92% of firms), wellbeing for homeworking (87%), general wellbeing (83%) and work/life balance (70%).

With research showing 56% of workers reporting increased happiness working from home, especially due to more flexibility and a better work/life balance, then new working patterns and flexible hours are likely to be appealing for candidates and employees alike. Companies who can implement a more flexible approach to work are likely to reap the benefits for many years to come.

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