Categories
Flexible Working Future of work

Flexible Working and the Four-Day Week

We all know that one of the major outcomes of the pandemic has been a surge of interest in flexible working. I’ll admit I was a bit concerned this would be a short-term blip but no, I am seeing many more jobs advertised as flexible or employers making clear they are open to remote working.

Interestingly, I had to drive to our local train the other day. Getting a parking space after 8.30am was impossible prior to the pandemic. These days there are always spaces available, a sign that many people are working from home or hybrid working.

Has Working Culture become more Flexible?

Before we get carried away thinking working culture has changed for the better, some organisations seem to be very confused about what flexible working is. Some are offering a thin veneer of flexible working when what they’re actually offering to staff is inflexible working.

Nothing demonstrates this more than the present debate about the four-day working week. There’s even a campaign group calling for a four-day, 32 hour working week with no loss of pay (you can check out its website here).

I have issues with this. Anyone with a genuine interest in flexible working should do. Why? Well, a four-day working week might mean one less day working, but in every other way it is a rigid work pattern. If someone is trying to work flexibly because they have childcare or some other caring responsibility, a four-day working week is unlikely to help much. You still have to organise childcare or fit caring responsibilities around your work hours, hours that are likely to be very rigid.

A Four-Day Week is not always Flexible

Last year, staff from Vice Media Group lobbied management for a four-day working week. When I saw the publicity photograph used to generate publicity for their campaign, I could not help but laugh. It featured a group of Gen Z Vice staff, outside of their office pulling poses that would have looked great on Instagram. I found it very hard to believe that any of them had children or any other sort of caring responsibility.

For Gen Z creatives, a three-day weekend would have meant an extra day to go on a European city-break or to go surfing. I’m not criticising Vice staff. The desire to have more leisure time is a superb reason to work a shorter week. As this poorly thought-out publicity photograph shows, however, there’s only one small demographic who were likely to benefit.

What other impacts does a Four-Day Working Week have?

A further issue with the four-day working week is that work hours often lengthen. Some employers are up-front about this and ask staff to work longer hours in return for a three-day weekend. For others, job design and workload do not change meaning people often sneakily work during the weekend or evenings to keep on top of things.

This, of course, is probably the biggest issue with the four-day working week. In many respects it is based on presenteeism, not outputs. If a particularly efficient employee can complete all their tasks in three days by cutting out the commute and working from home, why not let them work that way?

A further fear of mine is how a four-day working week could impact on gender equality. My concern is that employers will be much more open to female employees working a four-day week on the assumption they have family commitments. This simply reinforces unhelpful gender stereotypes: i.e. men’s correct place is the workplace and for women it’s the home.

A Four-Day Week is just one form of Flexible Working, it won’t suit everyone

A four-day working week should only be one option available in the flexible working mix. For some people it will be the correct approach, but it simply does not work if you impose it on all employees. Employers also need to be very clear about whether staff will be working compressed hours or if they work 32 hours a week and they need to be extra careful about reinforcing gender stereotypes.

Oh, and one further interesting point. Back in 2017, Vice published an article headlined: A 4-Day Work Week Isn’t Necessarily Better For You. It actually makes for a very interesting and balanced read. Isn’t it ironic that it was published by the very people now lobbying to adopt this method of working?

Of course, a Four-Day week is not the only form of flexible work that has been overly focused on by businesses since the pandemic. Hybrid working has been largely looked at by businesses as the only form of flexible working that is necessary. But take a look at why this is not the case and why Hybrid isn’t always flexible.

Categories
Careers Flexible Working Future of work Output

Productivity, Productivity, They’ve all got it in for Me!

The figures from the Office of National Statistics are in and they make for very interesting reading. What figures are these? Productivity estimates for Q4, 2021.

I won’t keep you in suspense any longer. The figures show that remote, flexible working has created a more productive workforce. Not just productive, but a workforce that is more productive working fewer hours.

Line Graph showing the increase of Output Productivity and hours worked from 2008 to 2021.
(Line Graph showing the increase of Output from 2008 to 2021.)

The Productivity Numbers Don’t Lie!

There is a vast amount of statistical detail and analysis behind the figures produced by the ONS so I’ll keep it simple. Prior to the pandemic, average hours worked by UK workers were 32.1 a week. For the final quarter of 2021, it is estimated the average number of hours worked was 31.6 per week. Output, however, was 0.8% above 2019 levels.

Interestingly, on the day these figures were published, my wife had been working in her office. It was the first time she had gone to her workplace for ages. I happened to tell her about the ONS stats and she said: “Well I left the house this morning at 7.30am and I’m just back now, so that’s a 12 hour day and I’ve spent maybe six of that actually working.”

I think my wife’s comment sums up the problem with the old, inflexible working culture. Everyone wasted time commuting to an office to use a laptop when that same device works perfectly well at home.

So to Maximize Productivity should we Abolish Office Working?

No, I am not suggesting we should get away of all offices forever. I think that is unrealistic and they do serve a purpose for team building, training, occasional meetings etc. Nonetheless, the figures suggest a predominantly home-based workforce, one that doesn’t pollute the planet travelling to work each day, is more productive.

I had long wondered what impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on productivity. It was reasonable to think things could be that bad because I didn’t hear any employers saying the productivity of their staff had tanked when the ‘work from home’ orders were in place in England. I have to caution that the ONS stats are estimates, but if they are correct, they show that remote work is productive work (It is also worth noting this set of stats are the first set to be produced following the ending of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme which had an impact on productivity levels).

Creating a Productive Future of Working.

What I hope this leads to is a discussion about presenteeism and flexibility. If you can be more productive working fewer hours, why should you be online or in the workplace simply because your contract says you should? Better still, if you can be more productive without travelling to a workplace, why should you experience the stress of making that journey in the first place?

This is particularly relevant for fathers. Research carried out at the beginning of the pandemic by the Fatherhood Institute found dads spent more time with their families and took on more of the domestic burden when they no longer had to commute to work.

Could we possibly reach a point where employment contracts state that they expect you to work: “38 hours a week or until you have completed allotted tasks to your manager’s satisfaction, whichever comes first”? I’d like to think this is the next logical step.

Prioritising Productivity Going Forward.

Now is the time to ask these questions. The work from home order is no longer in place in England and it does feel like we are entering a new phase of the pandemic. Potential conflict in the Ukraine and Prince Andrew’s legal battles are dominating the news headlines (for all the wrong reasons I should stress) but COVID is way down the news agenda. After two years of this nonsense, we seem to be drifting to a point where we are adapting our lives and accepting the fact COVID is here to stay.

What COVID did was get everyone thinking about working culture: Employees, employers, trade unions, academics and policy makers. As part of this drift to a new normal, we must not forget about the progress made in adopting flexible and remote working. There’s now evidence to show productivity has improved by working this way. If anything, now is the time to shout loudest to make sure we don’t slide back to less productive working patterns. After all, unproductive working patterns are bad for everyone.

To find out more about Output based working have a read of our piece on Input and Output – The Human Mechanics of Work!

Categories
Equality and Diversity Future of work Parental

Does Culture Change Start In Schools?

Does culture change start in schools? There’s a very short answer to this: No. Culture change starts in the home. It’s the culture and values of someone’s family that creates change. That said, schools have a significant role to play.

Schools are the first big institution most of us have contact with. It’s the place where most of us are introduced to influences our parents have no control over (especially secondary school). They are in a very good position to drive culture change and make it more inclusive.

My experience versus my children’s

Before I look at the data that’s available on this subject, I have noticed some significant changes between my experience at school and the experience of my children. My kids, for instance, think nothing of having wheelchair users in their classes. There are lifts and ramps in schools and children with physical or educational needs get the support of teaching assistants.

This simply didn’t happen when I was at school. Anyone with special educational or physical needs would have been packed off to a specialist school.

I can also still remember the day my eldest child came back from school one evening and started moving her hands rhythmically in front of my wife and I. After a few moments I realised she was doing Makaton sign language. The very basics of which are taught in most English primary schools for the first year or two (and a great shame it isn’t taught for longer).

Ethnic and cultural diversity in schools

The other big difference between my education and my kids’ is that I attended schools in rural areas. My children, meanwhile, go to schools within the orbit of London. While predominantly an ethnically white area that we live in, it is much more ethnically diverse than the area where I grew up. My children’s classmates and friendship groups also reflect this.

There simply weren’t the opportunities to mingle and learn from people from other ethnic and cultural backgrounds when I was growing up (A few people from the USA, maybe one or two from France but that was it). I received a crash course in multi-culturalism when I was 16 and spent a summer working in a hotel in central Paris. What a crash course it was: I was a teenage country boy having my first ‘big city’ experience hundreds of miles away from my parents in a different country. (There are many other blog posts I could write about this experience, the majority of which are not suitable for Find Your Flex)!

Speaking from personal experience, yes, individuals who attend inner city schools and suburban schools probably will have a more organic view of how diverse society is. What, however, does the data say?

I tried to find out, but the data simply doesn’t exist. I could find nothing comparing ethnic and cultural diversity within rural and urban schools. That said, the Office of National Statistics has some very interesting data on school performance (what follows applies to England only).

Looking at the data

Based on data from 2017/18, 67.3% of rural school children left school with English and Maths GCSE at grade 9-4. The figure for urban schoolchildren was 64%.

In a strange twist, 22% of urban secondary schools are rated as outstanding by Ofsted, versus 18% of rural schools. That said, 26% or urban schools were either deemed inadequate or requiring improvement compared to just 20% of rural schools. (I say “just,” that’s one in five rural schools and just over a quarter of urban schools that need major improvement so the numbers are very worrying).

When it comes to educational attainment, individuals from ethnic minorities often perform very well. London’s schools are renowned for their GCSE success. White British pupils make up 34% of London’s school children. This compares to 84% in the rest of England. Data from a study carried out by Bristol University found London’s pupils outperformed their English peers by eight GCSE points on average. The very same study said the diverse ethnic make-up of London’s schools may explain their success.

What can really have an impact on educational performance is social deprivation. In the most deprived urban areas, 49.1% of schoolchildren will obtain GCSE maths and English at grades 9-4. While for rural areas, the figure is 46.6%. In the wealthiest urban areas, 81.9% of children attain maths and English at grades 9-4 while the figure in rural areas is 80%.

What can be done to make schools more successful and change culture?

The evidence shows some interesting patterns. Rural schools are less diverse than urban schools but they are more successful. The most successful schools of all, however, are in London and they happen to be the most ethnically diverse.

One factor will determine your school performance: Social deprivation. Your ethnicity counts for nothing if your family is deprived. It also doesn’t matter if you are a city or village dweller. If you’re deprived, you’re likely to underperform at school.

It’s the Government’s job to deal with social deprivation. Schools, meanwhile, can and should promote different cultures. This is particularly important in rural locations where students simply won’t have the opportunity to mingle with those from other backgrounds.

Author: John Adams, Find Your Flex editorial team and Founder of Dad Blog UK

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