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.

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