HomeEmployee ExperienceEngagementWorking 9 to 5, what a way to make a living (across 4 days a week)

Working 9 to 5, what a way to make a living (across 4 days a week)

  • 7 Min Read

Is a four-day working week really the way forward? Gary Cookson examines the pros and cons of a 32-hour work limit.

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In this article, I’ll be talking about the concept of a four day working week and current debates on the subject, along with what we in HR can do on the subject.

This issue is currently topical in the UK at least as it forms part of Labour’s election promises. You can read about this here, where you’ll see that Labour proposes a maximum 32-hour working week, which the Conservatives say would cost the NHS alone £6.1bn.  The maximum 32-hour working week is something that Labour say would be phased in across 10 years.

The doom and gloom reaction from some about this is typical of the reaction to any change to the way we work – I recall similar things being said when the National Minimum Wage was introduced, and the same with the Working Time Regulations – but businesses and the wider economy have a way of adapting to change without the world ending.

But can we cope with a reduced working week?

There have been many recent studies on whether a four-day working week is feasible. In this BBC report, a cross-party research report indicates that it is unrealistic, and yet within the same report there are examples of companies implementing it successfully.  Henley Business School suggest that a 4 day working week would eventually save the UK economy £104bn through an increase in productivity and wellbeing, and also pointing out that the majority of workers would welcome this.

I’m sure they would. Who wouldn’t?

I’d quite like to do this myself, and have tried to do so in a planned experiment over the summer this year.

I recall hearing Peter Cheese talk last year at CIPD Conference wondering who invented Monday to Friday 9-5 in the first place?

It’s a good question. I run my own business and, to be honest, I have rarely stuck to that model but I found myself working in excess of 40 hours a week on a regular basis this year.

And I found my well-being suffering. Not all the time, and not every week, but in those weeks when I’ve worked away from home for a couple of days and long days all week plus a bit of evening work, it’s been very tough on my family and I.

Of course, as I run my own business, I’m largely in control of that. And with that in mind, I decided to take more time off over the summer and to actively plan and implement a reduced working week.

This took the form of at least two half-days or one full day off each week, and in some weeks two or three full days off.

The trial lasted 3.5 months before it ended just to see what happened when it did end.

As I ended the trial of working less hours (I won’t say part time, as I think the label could be insulting – it’s a reduced week, but only reduced in relation to my own previous pattern) I reflected on what I learnt:

  • Put simply, I liked working less hours. There can often be less income that goes with it as many reports suggest, but I was able to structure client work to make it a neutral effect and am lucky to have been able to do so. The downside of that is that the bigger income work took me further away from home so although I was off more, on the days I was working I was further away and spent more time away from home on days that I did work. This is a double-edged sword.
  • Working less hours had a good impact on my physical health as I was been able to train and exercise more, however my performance levels in my two main sports dipped despite more time and effort going into it, almost as if the distraction of working more was a positive force
  • I spent lots more money on family time. That’s not a moan, but a fact. Taking kids out the summer holidays is not cheap!
  • The world doesn’t stop moving. Clients and others didn’t know that I was off. Of course I could set my out-of-office auto reply but I tended not to for anything up to one day off, but irrespective the emails and messages still came through. A lot of my business is conducted on social media and there’s no out-of office-on Twitter, for example. So it was frustrating to see these come in and build up when I wasn’t working, and avoiding the temptation to reply or do something was very hard indeed.
  • The concept of the working day and working week is flexible enough to cope with me working reduced hours, as long as all concerned accept that reduced hours may need to be spread across just as many days a week, if not more, as longer hours. In that sense I mean it’s easier to work 30 hours across 5+ days than it is 30 hours across 4.
  • My time management and efficiency and effectiveness improved greatly as I had less hours to achieve what I needed to. Dead time was almost eliminated and I wondered how much dead time there is in what we consider a normal working week?
  • And, coming last on this list but top in terms of importance, is that my family enjoyed me being able to spend more time with them even if it’s offset by being away more on the times I do work. It made me think though – what’s better, seeing your family for a few hours each weekday or barely seeing them for three weekdays and then spending the other two weekdays (plus weekends) with them? Jury is out on that one maybe. What do you think?

When the trial ended, I went back to working 40+ hours a week and wow, did I notice the difference.  Almost all of the gains I’d made as described above became painfully distant, and I’ve had 7-8 weeks of what I’ll call a nightmare situation of not being around enough to be with my family because of work.

So I trialed both, and know which I prefer. I’m now back working reduced hours again, through choice, and intend making this a more permanent arrangement.  I’ve already started turning work down to avoid going over my allotted working hours per week. No sense working just for the sake of it.

I think a four-day working week may well be possible, but that a different reduced working pattern is more achievable (think 30 hours across 5 days to mirror school hours), and more stakeholders could benefit.

My wife runs her own business too and works over 3 days a week. She has some struggles dealing with client enquiries on the days she doesn’t work, and so her experiences mirror my own – cutting down the number of days you work in a week is not necessarily feasible, but cutting down the number of hours you work across the week most definitely is.

There’s a really good report from The Guardian that shows a range of different thinking on the topic, and rightly focuses not on the desirability of this, but the feasibility.

In HR, what can we do?

I think for a start we should promote reduced hours working – see what roles can be done in this way, and capitalize on employee’s desire to do so. If the productivity gains match what I saw in my trial, the quick wins should be obvious and that should build some momentum.

I think we should also make more noise about working reduced hours – if you’re off to do the school run for example, tell everyone you see on the way out of the building.

We should also challenge anyone working reduced hours about how they intend to increase their productivity as a result, and see what support they need in order to do so.

We could also start talking to other business leaders about how the business could look and work differently if reduced hours took effect, and lead on the organisational design principles that would flow from this. Come up with ideas first to help knock down the barriers to reduced hours working

There’s much more we could do too, and I may explore some more actions in a future article.

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