Should we experiment with the working week?

As Unilever announces plans for a 4-day week pilot, is the constant disruption of Covid the time for more experimentation with ways of working that allow people the time they need to rest?

Woman relaxing on the sofa with a cup of tea


One of the many things we have learnt over the course of the last few years is that major disruption is a feature of modern working life and that the ability to deal with it and find ways to pivot quickly, even to reinvent a company’s product line in days, is vital. People have to be quick witted, endlessly inventive and agile. Those employers who already have processes that enable that have adapted best. The downside is that constant innovation and agility is tiring. You need some stability within the instability or at least regular pit stops to re-energise.

Some employers have used Covid to bring in new ways of working or at least to trial them. This week it was announced that Unilever is to pilot a four-day week on full pay in New Zealand. The trial will last a year and involve 81 members of staff. There will be a review after a year and the outcome could lead to a wider roll-out to Unilever’s staff around the world.

The four-day week has to be carefully planned as different functions inside a large organisation will need different degrees of cover. For instance, we know from other organisations that have brought in a four-day week that communications can work well on a Monday-Thursday basis with emergency cover on a Friday because Fridays tend to be quiet days news-wise and communications workers are used to providing emergency cover over weekends. However, in other functions, having all staff off on a single day of the week may not work.

Interestingly, New Zealand is the home of Perpetual Guardian, whose founder Andrew Barnes is author of The 4-day week and is spearheading a movement towards a shorter working week. He argues that this not only improves employees’ work life balance, but also their productivity and effectiveness. He adds that it has other benefits, including reducing commuting, addressing global heating, reducing the gender pay gap and enabling people to have more time for community work. Barnes has spoken of the risk that the four-day week could be used, in our difficult economic times, to drive down wages, but says now is a good time for employers to trial it, providing they guarantee that wages will not be reduced in the long term, given productivity is not reduced.

Reduced hours are being used by some employers as a way to reduce redundancies caused by Covid. In Germany, it was reported this week that more companies are using short-time work (Kurzarbeit) schemes, with 28% in November using them, up from 24.8% in October. Could this also bring more interest in part-time options or job shares in the long term? Part-time jobs have been hard hit by Covid and there has been little movement on job shares in recent years. Most flexible working attention over the last months has been focused on remote working. When it comes to work life balance, do we need more part-time work or just a reduction overall in the standard working week and more remote working and flexi hours?

When compressed hours became a regular part of employers’ flexible working offer, they were heralded as a way to buy people time without reducing their overall hours. They would work their hours in fewer days. But many ended up exhausted and/or checking in on work on their day off and there was some resentment in organisations where everyone was working longer days generally.

The Covid-19 experience has taught us the value of rest and how work life balance is an issue for everyone. I was reading the other day about an idea for a ranking of education institutions based on their resilience. It’s an interesting concept – spreading best practice on how you keep going amid constant disruption.  While we anticipate a vaccine and some kind of relaxation of the Covid regime in the next year, it is very clear that disruption is going to be the name of the game for some time to come. We need to find ways to keep going, and not just scrambling for the end of each and every week.

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