The world is full of abnormalities of late, so the line between this and ‘normal’ has become increasingly blurred. One ‘abnormality’ – but that nonetheless has a growing movement behind it – is the four-day working week.
The concept first came to my attention at a Hackathon I ran for a large city council where the breakout I supported was the issue of lack of career opportunities for working carers. In the discussion, we all concluded that the five-day, full-time operating week was the biggest barrier to career progression for working carers.
I was vexed by this unfairness and thought long and hard about why jobs at a more senior level couldn’t be recast as job shares or more flexible or alternative hours. Fast forward to now and we have several movements – perhaps most famously being led by the New Economics Foundation and the TUC – weighing in on a four-day week.
Equally, there are a lot of sceptics – whom I have to call out as probably never having even experimented with this long term, or who tried it but found it was more pressure and intensity so dropped it. C’est la vie – it didn’t work for them.
At the nine person, four time zone-distributed HR, OD and change consulting firm I founded in 2012, we have just started our great social experiment in this area. We were tired by the monotony of every day in the same space at the same screen, yet also loving the safety and comfort of home working. We had that choice to make – many others don’t, I fully appreciate that. Yet we couldn’t escape the fact that we all felt suboptimal; mojo gone, distracted, tired, unfocused and struggling to balance short bursts of low-cognitive admin with deep thinking work for clients.
Our idea, somewhat fuelled by interest in the four-day working week, was this: Wellness Wednesdays. We would be off duty that day. From the outset, we took the decision that this wasn’t about cutting pay or consulting fees. It was restoring – or even discovering – an optimal way to be with our work and ourselves. We deliberately didn’t do a Friday or Monday off. We all felt long weekends were great but the restart of a Monday felt harsher. So we ‘punctuated’ the week – a word that really resonated.
Four weeks in, and here’s what we’ve found:
- A renewed energy for Tuesday. Already a much more optimal day than it used to be for performance and vitality in conversations and exchanges.
- No diary crunch. We are just more careful now how long we book for meetings knowing we have less time on our hands. This has seen us save about one hour per person per week already – 36 hours a month saved at the drop of a hat.
- Client availability. We’ve shared this with our clients and they all love it – and respect it, even apologising if they send us something on a Wednesday. Some are considering adopting it themselves.
- A spark for Thursday. By this day, I would be really struggling. Now it’s my best day of the week and others in the team are reporting the same.
- No longer ‘on’ days than we were doing before. We’re sticking to around eight hours per day. (I’m doing around nine – sometimes 10-12 – but always have. But already I’ve noticed less of those for some reason.)
- More time for other things. Wellness Wednesday is defined as ‘whatever’s good for your soul’. In four weeks I’ve read eight books. In the previous 12 months, I’d read two and abandoned/parked loads more. The team are also reading more – or painting, exercising, doing more life-admin, going for more walks, meditating or doing more yoga.
We didn’t really suffer from high levels of sickness absence, but we wanted to avoid that. We were noticing more headaches and lethargy so we think we’ve arrested that before it became an issue.
Now to put it into context. Yes, we’re only nine people; most teams are that size in larger corporates. We’re also incredibly short on working capital so this is a big deal for us; if we lost work, we’d be in danger. It’s so early on, it would be wrong for me to give false hope that this was the answer. But we are measuring this and will report in more detail with data, experiences and realisations in November.
Most of all it’s brought sharply into focus what other experiments in this area (like Andrew Barnes and Perpetual Guardian) have found:
- Small additions to performance optimisation add up to offset the time where no work is done;
- People feel more engaged with their work – there is a palpable sense they are enjoying it more and it’s less of a toil;
- Life admin no longer conflicts and can be allocated to Wednesdays, providing distraction-free working during the four ‘on’ days;
- Sleep, rest and exercise are not overrated ‘nice to haves’. They’re essential to give us a fighting chance of doing our best when we need to;
So am I advocating you all do this? Not at all. I can see many reasons why this wouldn’t work for everyone. What I am advocating is that you pay more attention to the fact that presenteeism, a five-day working work and long hours are not the only way. This format is possibly contributing to record levels of work-related stress (595,000 lost working days in 2018, according to HSE research). And I am advocating you work with your own people to experiment with different ways of working.
Perry Timms is founder and chief energy officer at PTHR and author of The Energized Workplace