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Has Covid Made the 4-Day Week Mainstream?

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Planning for the Post-Covid Workplace  

As we cautiously plan for the post-Covid world, and contemplate a potential return to an office environment, companies find themselves needing to refocus on their employees’ mental wellbeing, health, and ‘new’ approaches to working life.  There are all sorts of options on the table, including the possible introduction of shorter working weeks, hyper flexible working hours, hybrid working – including part home and part office-based contracts. For organisations, particularly HR departments, it is a minefield, entering unchartered territories where there are risks inherent in whatever approach is adopted.   

Every employee’s experience of Covid is personal, has had an effect and needs consideration.   

Employee wellbeing and safety are at the forefront of most HR professional’s agenda as they plan for this post-Covid stage and integrating and accommodating diverse needs and approaches is key to smoothing the transition into whatever workplace model is adopted. 

Innovative Models – 4-Day Working Week 

Turning the focus to abroad, Japan announced on the 23rd of June that they have proposed a 4-day working week as part of their annual economic policy guidelines, a countermeasure to the plummeting birth-rates and mental health crisis attributed to poor work-life balance. 

The pandemic has seemingly played a part in catalysing a shift in attitudes to the working week worldwide. Spain announced in March it will be trialling the idea proposed by left-wing party Más País; a government-supported pilot scheme which 200-400 companies have been estimated to be a part of, aided by the EU Coronavirus Recovery Fund. 

The overall concept is that employees remain on the same rate of pay as they were for a 5-day week, with no requirement to compensate for the lost working hours. Employees are given the flexibility to choose their days off, opening-up opportunities for a more diverse group of workers who would usually be unable to commit to a full-time role – for example carers or those with children where shorter working weeks better accommodate their lifestyles. 

These ideas have been circulating elsewhere, most notably Germany, New Zealand, Iceland and the UK, and while on the surface it may seem counter-intuitive – the assumption being that employers would inhibit their productivity by reducing their working hours by 1/5th – data indicates that this is leading to increased efficiency. Companies who have previously trialled the 4-day work week have reported more money saved in energy consumption and reduced absenteeism, less employee turnover, and increased productivity and employee wellbeing – as well as smaller carbon-footprints. Microsoft Japan even saw a 40% increase in sales during their experiment in August 2019. Iceland has run the world’s largest 4-day working week trial, with more than 2500 taking part in a pilot scheme, which ran from 2015 to 2019 and has resulted in an “overwhelming success” boosting productivity and wellbeing and leading to permanent changes.   

While the concept of a 4-day working week is still in its infancy and trial stages in most countries, with such positive outcomes, who knows how quickly wider adoption could gain traction, as organisations seek to acquire, retain and nurture the most sought-after talent. 

Has Coronavirus Changed Working Practices Forever? 

Opinions are split. Organisations have had to morph to accommodate Coronavirus-related regulations. Some have failed, others have thrived.  Some industries better accommodate remote working, others simply can’t. The investment banking industry has been quite vocal on the need to train, integrate and educate young staff and the belief that the interaction gained in person in the office is indispensable. And while technology has progressed considerably, real-time, anecdotal, opportunistic interaction and creativity is challenging to reproduce remotely. JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs have both previously stated they aim to have offices return to normal by the time Covid social restrictions end in the UK, claiming the interpersonal relationships made in-person are integral to workplace culture.  Furthermore, socialisation is an integral part of wellbeing and good mental health.   

More recently, other high-tech operators such as Apple have reportedly announced models where their employees will work in the office at least 3 fixed days a week starting this September. This made headlines when workers replied to the news with an open letter demanding more flexibility. This has also become an issue of contention amongst Facebooks ranks as well, as employees felt due to the nature of their work returning to the office en masse was needless endangerment to their personal health. 

There are indicators that Covid measures could lead to lasting changes – Twitter and Fujitsu have stated that remote-working will be a permanent option and many employees have been outspoken about their preference to remote-work due to time and money saved not commuting, less distractions and overall general convenience. A study conducted by the Boston Consulting Group (in partnership with Microsoft) indicates that 76% of businesses had implemented some form of flexible working policy since the start of the pandemic – up from 15% – and 88% percent expected remote working to be a “greater part of a more hybrid form of working in future”.  

However, according to a survey published earlier this year by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), 1/3rd of people felt working from home was detrimental to their mental health and wellbeing, and only 34% of businesses offered some form of support. The organisation is calling for changes in corporate culture for the future sustainability of hybrid working; ensuring access to mental health support programmes, access to physical health equipment and assessments – provided for by employers – and a concerted effort by businesses to encourage employees to separate their work from home-life by ignoring / banning emails outside of work hours. 

Ultimately, the workforce is divided, and leads the way to a possible future which may see open-offices and remote-working become the norm for businesses, as technology allows for more streamlined methods of communication and talent from further away to work without commuting or uprooting their lives. 

Discussion surrounding wider work-life balance has never been more relevant in our modern age. With mental health issues arising from the pandemic, work-from-home, and protocols around returning to the office it is no wonder these ideas are beginning to gain some real traction. Though these shifts in work-culture are only in their infancy, they are bringing the relationship between wellbeing and business to the forefront of mainstream discussion as more data and studies are produced highlighting the benefits for both employee and employer.