There are growing calls to provide greater flexibility in the workplace, with the four-day working week being widely touted as a viable option. Recent work has argued for a wholesale shift to the four-day working week for the public sector, reiterating the Labour Party’s earlier stance.
Research carried out here at Henley illustrated that there were substantial gains for employees and employers already using the four-day working week, including increased staff productivity and satisfaction as well as a reduction in sickness absence. It also showed that savings of £92 billion are being made each year by those businesses that have already enabled a four-day week, with a possible saving of £104 billion annually if others followed suit.
While there are undoubtedly potential gains in the public sector embracing a four-day working week, Henley’s work, carried out prior to the pandemic and based on the views of both employees and employers, does suggest there are a number of reasons to be sceptical about taking a blanket approach.
The biggest concern when it comes to implementing a four-day working week for managers spanning both the public and private sector is availability to consumers. This is particularly the case for manual roles and those in public facing roles. 82% of employers not currently offering a four-day working week believe ensuring employees are available to the customer outweighs the need for flexible working practices. Nearly three quarters (73%) feel a four-day working week would be too difficult to implement logistically and, of relevance to the public sector, this is particularly pertinent for those working in health care. It was also the case that there needs to be the establishment of trust between managers and their employees, particularly where monitoring is difficult, making some employers wary.
In order to illustrate the potential of the policy, sensible organisations will wish to put evaluation mechanisms in place in order to assess where gains are occurring and how to ensure both employers and employees benefit. Given these factors, and a limited understanding of how best to implement four-day weeks in the very wide set of contexts in which the public sector operates, a blanket shift may undermine potential gains associated with the shift to more flexible employment. Doing so would have negative effects in the short term on both employees and employers. More problematically, failures to find gains could undermine future political will to undertake reform, therefore potentially ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water’.
The reason why such failure would be so damaging is that the potential for positive gains for employers and employees are great. Our research showed a four-day week enabled employees to obtain greater satisfaction in their work, lowered stress levels, and enabled many individuals to pursue their passions by devoting the extra day to their own ‘side hustles’.
Employers reported that the policy could assist in hiring and retention, particularly for younger employees who saw flexibility as essential. There were also significant knock-on effects for the wider society such as the potential of a ‘green’ dividend – if all organisations were to introduce a four-day working week, travel by car would decrease by more than half a billion miles each week.
The four-day working week is not the only form of flexible work available. Indeed, there are also lessons from the COVID-19 lockdown that have mandated remote working, as a substantial proportion of the population has shifted from the ‘work office’ to the ‘home office’.
Further work conducted over the pandemic by Henley shows that there are advantages and disadvantages associated with remote working. Advantages include less need for expensive office space, and the associated heating, lighting and other costs, avoidance of the stress of commuting to work, and the ability for employees to spend more time with their children.
On the other hand, some work activities could be more time consuming, remote interaction could make some communication less effective, and some employees struggled to maintain the levels of mental resilience and energy they had prior to the crisis.
It is important to stress that while the four-day working week and remote working may be the forms of flexible work that have been thrust into the spotlight, there are of course a number of other options, some of which may suit employers and employees better. For example, more traditional forms such as working part-time (at reduced pay) may be an alternative that works better for others.
Rather than taking the drastic step of shifting an entire sector into a particular form of flexible working, there is an imperative to open up conversations between employers and their employees, to trial and evaluate different forms of flexible employment and implement those which best suit the contexts and workplace roles.