Why the 4-day work week doesn't make sense

'I would be willing to bet that flexibility is valued higher than a four-day workweek'

Why the 4-day work week doesn't make sense

Do employees actually need a four-day workweek?

Alicia Garcia doesn’t think so. As chief people officer at Master Control, provider of quality management software, she believes there’s a better way to entice and retain top talent — especially when we’re seeing high turnover rates and low unemployment.

“If you want to keep them, [you’re] going to have to start thinking differently about what they need. And I would be willing to bet that if you talk to most... flexibility is going to be valued higher than a four-day workweek.”

But take note: This isn't about giving employees carte blanche access to work whenever they want, she says.

“This is about a partnership between the employee and the company to make sure that both feels successful. And it requires extra communication and extra engagement. It's harder — it's harder for the company to not just have an easy, across-the-board policy, but it's better for the employees. And it's better for the work-life balance, it's better for the individuals who are trying to care for multiple generations in their own home.”

On average, the number of hours worked has a relationship to well being, which could be a challenge for 10-hour days, says Jim Harter, chief scientist of workplace management and wellbeing at Gallup in Omaha, Neb.

“If you have an engaging job, that effect is lessened. So the quality of the workplace is really the big factor…. whether it's people having flex time, or whether they work remote or not, the quality of the workplace and how well people are managed is the major factor that affects engagement and well being.”

Even before the pandemic, the most desired perk was flex time, he says.

“There's certainly an endowment effect now where if you try to pull away that flexibility from people, especially in the current labour market, it's going to be pretty tough on organizations in terms of getting star employees to join,” says Harter.

“For some people, being able to choose a four-day workweek is a form of flexibility. I wouldn't say that it's a bad idea at all, I think it just only works for some people in some jobs.”

Focusing on flexibility

A four-day work week sounds amazing, it sounds like you're either working fewer hours or fewer days, but it can still be restrictive for individuals who may need, for example, a random Tuesday afternoon off, says Garcia.

“You have the same problems that you have with five-day work weeks,” she says. “It isn't about coming up with just another rigid standard that then you have to monitor and keep people to, it's about what's right for the employee, and how do you get the work done.”

A four-day workweek can also mean 40 hours packed into four long days, or reduced hours which is going to completely change your cost dynamics, says Garcia.

Instead, it’s about having the flexibility to be successful with both sides of your life, work and personal.

“That’s what we're finding is really attractive for top talent — they don't necessarily want to work less, they just need to be able to fit in a lot of the things that are unplannable or are really important to them and just come up randomly [such as a] doctor's appointments and their yoga class, or someone is visiting.”

There is a potential with the four-day workweek where not everyone has the same day off, so someone's off on a Tuesday, and another on a Wednesday, so they basically cover for each other, but it would have to be worked out carefully, to ensure there are no increases in costs, she says.

“You want to make sure you're not hiring two people for one role unless they truly are split in half and they're both doing half time.”

And of course the hybrid working environment, which allows people to work remotely intermittently, has really opened up a lot of doors, says Garcia

“Having the right technology to support it, understanding what the employees need, and empowering your managers to work directly with them really creates, I think, a very special formula for having individuals feel excited and engaged… [and] ‘This company cares about me.’ And now more than ever, they want to know, we care. And we actually do.”

A Winnipeg company says it has seen success by shortening its work week.

Empowering management

Master Control has seen a lot of success with its flexible approach in empowering line managers, says Garcia.

“[It’s about allowing] the manager group that are working with individual employees to be able to say, ‘Here’s the work that needs to be done, here’s the flexibility you need, what can we do to adjust?’ and work with them directly,” she says.

“We find there's so much more engagement from employees who say, ‘I need to leave from 12 to two today, to go to a kindergarten lunch, but I'm going to log right back in as soon as I get home.’ And then they do and their work is amazing.”

Organizations and managers specifically need to filter decisions around flexibility through several criteria, says Harter. These include an individual’s situation and their productivity.

“The managers are in the best position to know the idiosyncrasies going on with each person and to know what's likely to work best and to think about how that affects productivity for those individuals,” he says.

It’s also about considering how people collaborate with their teams most effectively, as some jobs need more in-person time than others, and to assess the value they bring to customers, says Harter.

“If you can look at a job and say, ‘Well, this person can work at home three days a week and still meet customer needs, maybe even do it better because they're not in a car commuting,’ then that's a good reason.”

Despite the many benefits, a shortened work week should not be mandated, says an expert, citing proposed legislation in California.

There’s also a risk that corporate culture could deteriorate. And the root cause variable that organizations need to get right is how people are managed, says Harter.

“In a flexible environment, you've got to have three things: you’ve got to have clear expectations, and people need to be involved in their goals and setting their own goals… they need to be having meaningful conversations… and [you need] accountability.

“If you have a highly flexible environment, you’d better have some form of accountability where you know what people are doing and you know how they're performing. And it can be very developmental, it doesn't have to be something where people feel like they've got someone standing over them all the time; it can be very future-oriented.”

Is the four-day workweek a ‘perfect recipe for burnout’? Yes, says the CEO of a tech company.

Culture of trust

Despite the benefits of a more flexible approach, one key ingredient is needed: trust.

That can involve leadership training, to help managers understand the importance of trust and the “trust tax,” which takes away from the productivity of an organization if it lacks a trusting environment, says Garcia.

But this isn’t about blind trust — there has to be a way to verify that the work is getting done, she says.

“It's having reasonable methods to make sure that things are happening. And now with so many things being trackable, traceable KPIs OKRs, you have so many methods available to make sure that the work’s getting done that you should be able to say, ‘OK, something's wrong here’ or ‘This is this is going well, we can do it.’”

To that end, staff should know that providing this flexibility is a privilege, not a right, and the employer may have to dial it back if problems emerge, says Garcia.

“But I do think carte blanche policies to say, ‘We just have to be in the office, it's the only way we'll be successful’ is more of an indication of lack of trust than a necessity to be able to say, ‘This is the only way employees are productive.’”

The root variable in all this is how people are managed, and that affects trust, says Harter, adding that it starts with basic work variables, such as knowing what's expected of you at work, having the materials and equipment to do your work, doing work that’s fulfilling and being recognized.

“If you're working 10-hour days, you’d better like the work that you're doing, and you need to be doing what you do best, and you need to have an environment where people feel recognized and they clearly know what's expected.”

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