A setback for the four-day week?

Is the Wellcome Trust’s decision not to go with the four-day week a setback for flexible working?

Woman working at home


A setback for the four-day week was reported at the end of last week as the Wellcome Trust decided not to go ahead with it. The Trust is said to have looked into it and found a four-day week ‘too operationally complex’ to implement.

The initial reasons for doing a three-month study into the possibility of moving to a four-day week was employee well-being and greater work-life balance as well as potential improvements in productivity. However, the Trust is said to have found a compressed working week would be difficult to operate in some backroom departments such as IT and HR and include stress. The decision not to go ahead with the four-day week is seen as a blow to those advocating reduced working weeks, including the Labour Party, but the Wellcome Trust says it is still committed to finding ways to improve employee well-being.

We have profiled employers who have moved to a four-day week on workingmums.co.uk. Most are smaller employers and have very specific ways of operating. For instance, Radioactive PR’s move to a four-day week recognises that Fridays are light days in PR and that PR people already work on stand-by over weekends.

It’s harder in larger organisations and each sector has its own demands. Some have criticised the four-day week as an example of inflexible flexible working, imposing four days instead of finding more flexible solutions that fit a particular individual, team or workplace.

But four-day weeks are popular. In recent years many women who would previously have reduced to three days a week are instead moving to four with a day or two a day of working from home. That makes the whole work-life thing manageable.

What people want is more time for the non-work stuff and more time generally to recover from the ever-increasing intensity of the working week.

Workloads seem always to go up rather than down. In the media, there’s more and more social media to keep on top of or feed, for instance. An extra tweet or two a day seems like nothing much extra, but then there is Instagram, replying to tweets usually more or less immediately, tagging the right people, monitoring other tweets and so on and so on. It all mounts up. And nothing else is usually taken off your workload.

That is why there need to be regular checks on workloads, regular discussions on what is and isn’t possible, and what is and isn’t necessary. It’s not enough to review and redesign jobs at the point of advertising them, though that is crucial. Jobs are changing all the time and workloads need to be realistic or people end up not caring so much, caring too much and risking burnout or leaving.

The clamour for a four-day week is just a symptom that people need more time to recover from the intensity of modern working lives. It coincides with increasing automation. Who knows what automation will bring – different reports suggest wildly different scenarios. If it could be used intelligently to free people up to do the elements of their jobs that only they can do it could be a positive.

I was trying to find contact details for a journalist the other day. I went on a newspaper’s Facebook page. It boasted that it replied instantaneously to messages. Of course, it did. It was a bot. I asked it for the contact details of the newsdesk. Instantaneously it gave me the page which I had earlier looked at on the newspaper’s website. A blank page. I asked again in different words. It did not understand. It started suggesting wilder and wilder options. In fact it was next to useless, like so many of those phone systems you get from internet companies and the like when your line goes down and you are basically desperate to talk to a human being to explain your problem.

On our site we get loads of questions from people about employment law. Like most questions, they are usually not straightforward because people’s lives are not straightforward. They often have several caveats or different elements. A bot answer can only answer the simple stuff. That does alleviate some of the work a human might have to do, but it does not entirely replace a human. At least not yet. If that could be harnessed to benefit an exhausted workforce it could bring benefits – at least in the short term.

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