Successive generations have witnessed seismic shifts in the workplace; post-war it was the return of the surviving soldiers to their civilian roles and the impact on the women who had to work in their place. Decades later it was the increase of women in the workplace, supported by equal pay and anti-discrimination legislation. For this generation, post-pandemic, we are still looking to see how history will judge us; will there be a seismic shift as old working practices are discarded for new ideas?
Four-day week – less work, same pay, same productivity
One of the ideas which was in play pre-pandemic, but has gained more momentum since, is the introduction of a four-day week. Staff work 80% of the week for 100% of their week’s salary whilst maintaining 100% productivity. This may sound like bad maths to many of us. But state intervention in France and Portugal in reducing the working week demonstrates that it can have its advantages. As of June 2022, a six-month trial of more than 3,000 workers at 60 companies across Britain will trial a four-day week in what The Guardian reported is thought to be the biggest pilot scheme to take place anywhere in the world. Employees from a wide range of businesses and charities are expected to take part in the scheme, which will run for six months until December 2022. Spain is rolling out a similar trial later this year. Each trial is extolling the benefit of this reduced week as follows:
• Increased staff wellbeing – released from the long hours’ culture, employees and workers have more time to unwind, relax and focus on their well-being. This in turn leads to reduced sickness levels and happier, healthier staff tend to say with their employer longer.
• Increased productivity – studies show that long hours do not always lead to a better work rate – shorter more intense bursts are better for productivity rather than expecting staff to work longer hours.
• Equality – staff who work more flexible or reduced hours are often women with family responsibilities outside the home. This creates a two-tier system in which women are often disadvantaged. Moving all the workforce onto four days a week outlaws this two-tier system and means the family responsibilities can be more easily shared.
• Strong branding – The 4 Day week Campaign (the organisation behind the UK trial) notes that an organisation which is willing to take this step creates a strong brand for its staff and customers and makes huge strides in reducing its carbon footprint considering work travel, takeout sandwiches, coffees etc.
Whilst these are impressive, that is not the full picture. It is perhaps unrealistic to think that one pattern can solve the ills of the UK’s large and varied workforce. The downsides to this move to four weeks could be:
• Increased stress – by reducing the hours but not the workload will this just create greater stress within the working hours than when they are spread over five days? The pilot is clear that there must be a reduction of working hours rather than five days being condensed into four, but the reality of maintaining 100% productivity may mean that employees feel that they must work extra hours voluntarily within the four days to get all the work done.
• Division of the workforce – working from home during the pandemic created a division between those who could work from home – generally professionals in specific sectors – and those who could not – healthcare, education, and less-skilled workers. This pattern could be perpetuated with any move to a four-day week and so result in a polarised workforce across the county.
• Part-time employees – what would happen to employees who are on existing four days a week contracts on a reduced salary? Could they request a reduction in hours? Could they request an increase in salary if they remain on four days a week? Given that it is more likely to be female employees on part-time contracts, this could present potential discrimination with equal pay issues, which would be hard to justify.
• Too operationally complex – back in 2019, the Wellcome Trust scrapped its plans to trial a four-day week for its 800 head office staff. The launch of the three-month study was planned for autumn 2019 but was scrapped as deemed too operationally complex. Wellcome noted that some areas of the business would benefit better than others which would result in clear inequalities.
Whilst I imagine most UK companies will not be thinking as radically as Netflix – offering unlimited holidays – many will be addressing how they want to innovate and what that will look like in the next decades. The ultimate balance needs to be struck between keeping staff happy and healthy but also productive. We do not expect to see a four-day week as the norm for UK businesses any time soon and given the Government’s lack of speed on any employment legislation at present, a government initiative would seem unlikely. That said, organisations may struggle to return to pre-pandemic normal and those who seek to do so face an uphill and potential discriminatory struggle. We already know of one organisation reducing the salaries of employees who wish to continue to work from home. Apparently, the reduction in salary is to take account of savings such as lunch and office wear etc. Employers making bold steps like that should be mindful of the potential for discrimination: it is often, but not always, women who will work from home as it can make caring arrangements easier to handle. Reduce the salary of a group where women are disproportionately disadvantaged and claims for indirect discrimination will follow.
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For more information, please contact Katherine Sinclair.
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