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Can the four day working week work for everyone?

As the airwaves buzz with examples of the benefits of a four day working week, it’s tempting to think that it’s the flexible solution we’ve all been looking for. But there’s a long way to go before we can make it universally available.

WindowBy Emma Stewart MBE, CEO of Timewise

Right now, there’s an influx of stories about the benefits of having a four day working week as standard. Employees and organisations all over the country, and indeed the world, are keen to share their experiences of paying staff full-time wages for a four day week, and how this has maintained or even boosted productivity, increased wellbeing and made life better all round. And bodies such as the TUC, as well as the shadow chancellor John McDonnell, appear to agree that it’s the way forward.

Here at Timewise, we’re delighted that the call for shorter working hours, and the potential business benefits of doing so, are being shared across the globe. We’ve been talking about the business case for flexible working for many years. And we make a point of championing people who do senior roles in fewer hours, as well as flex-friendly organisations, through our annual Timewise Power 50 awards.

So we’re optimistic that these conversations around the four day working week will help companies think seriously about the benefits of empowering their employees to work less. And if that’s something you would like to explore, we’d be happy to support you. But it’s also important to note that the four day working week is not the same thing as a part-time job – and it isn’t a magical solution that can work for everyone.

A four day working week isn’t just a schedule tweak

Most of the examples we’re hearing about right now tend to come from one end of the employment market – specifically, office-based roles within knowledge and creative industries such as PR. And while these kinds of roles are starting to pop up in other sectors, they are still very much in the minority.

However, implementing a formal four day working week needs to be done at an organisational level; it’s not something that can easily be given to a few members of the team. And there are some roles, or sectors in which it is far more complicated to do so – or only possible at a prohibitively high cost to the business.

For example, in sectors such as retail or teaching, or within the airline industry, the employee’s output is the physical service they are providing, whether to shoppers, students or holidaymakers. So by only being available for four-fifths of the time, they would only be able to deliver four-fifths of their role. And companies, especially those in low-margin sectors, are unlikely to be able to pay a full-time wage on that basis.

Similarly, in industries such as manufacturing, in which employees are creating an actual product which takes a specific amount of time to make, reducing to a four day working week would mean they produced fourth fifths of their quota. Again, an employer is unlikely to pay a full-time wage for that.

And yes, you could argue that automation could help with the latter example. It would be brilliant if employers chose to pass on efficiency savings created by increased automation to their employees, by paying them the same wage to work less. But I’m not aware of any examples of automation efficiency being shared out in this way; any savings seem more commonly to be delivered to shareholders or the bottom line.

Hard-to-crack sectors need innovative flexible solutions

What’s the answer, then? Well, if the four day working week is to become more widespread, then an enormous amount of work needs to go in at government and policy level. For manufacturing industries or service-driven, low-margin sectors like those mentioned above, this cannot happen quickly. It will require a huge amount of collaboration and creativity, not to mention investment.

But in the short term, what we can do is look at other ways to make these sectors and industries better places to work, by delivering innovative flexible roles. And the word innovation is key here. Just as these sectors are not easily suited to a four day working week, they are also more difficult to make more generally flexible. Doing so requires clever solutions, carefully crafted and tested by people who understand how flexible job design works.

It’s for this reason that we recently launched the Timewise Innovation Unit, a do-tank through which we research, test and share what works in challenging sectors. Our aim is to break down the barriers to flexible working, and make it more widely available, by designing more options for Good Flexible Work.

We are currently running a number of pilots through the Innovation Unit, across sectors such as nursing, facilities management, teaching and retail. We will be creating a series of sector specific resources based on our learnings, and sharing both these and the results of the pilots themselves; keep an eye on our Twitter and LinkedIn feeds for news. And if you’re based in a similarly challenging sector and would like to discuss your options, please get in touch.

So by all means, let’s celebrate the successes of those who have moved to a four day working week. Let’s encourage other organisations who can do so to follow suit. But let’s also keep up the work to bring flexible working into tough-to-crack sectors, so that no one gets left behind.

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