From ‘back to work’ orders to hybrid hype, office life is the subject of a tense debate. In some places, at least.
Headlines stated last week that Nike is one of the latest big brands to order its employees to return to its office for four days a week.
In the UK, the government is advising local authorities against trialling a four-day working week. It seems only one council is doing this at the time of writing, however.
Neither of these things point to a widespread trend, but parties with an interest in the debate tend to seize on them. For those familiar with office life before the pandemic, how and where we work is a live and intensely personal question. Organisations are trying to find the best approach for their teams and customers, often amidst confusing or unhelpful guidance.
In the spirit of flexible working, they should be prepared to experiment, collaborate and tweak their approaches. Much of the current debate – in the media at least – doesn’t allow for this. Sadly, working life is ensnared in the latest culture war pitting office workers against the ‘woke from home’ brigade. The reality, as always, is more nuanced.
This is the context into which proposals for a four-day working week step in. The four-day week shouldn’t be confused with compressed hours, which enable staff to work their contracted time across fewer days. The difference here is that employers pay staff a full time rate for spending four days working. Supporters say this helps attract top talent, retain staff and boost employee engagement. This piece has some great case studies. Trials by governments in Wales and Scotland will examine these points further.
Despite the headlines, it’s not caught on widely yet. I get why it’s popular amongst staff who value work-life blance. I also understand the concerns behind the questions it raises.
Five questions for four-day weeks
But what questions should employers and teams consider before making such a big change? Here are five that come to my mind.
#1: What’s the challenge we’re trying to solve?
It’s always worth starting with the problem, rather than the solution. Are employers looking to reduce staff turnover, or improve morale, service provision, or productivity? Understanding this may point to a different solution than a four-day working week. And it needs to be part of a holistic plan that’s properly understood to give it every chance of success.
#2: Are we ready to measure outputs or outcomes, rather than time at work?
Shorter working weeks suggest a switch in focus to value and output, rather than time spent at one’s desk. This is a good thing, and long overdue – if it’s happening in this way. But it’s interesting to see local authorities considering this, while their procurement teams continue to ask for hourly and daily rates from suppliers. This is part of a much bigger question of how organisations measure productivity and value and set themselves up to deliver it. It doesn’t feel like we’re considering this in the round yet.
#3: Will this widen the divide?
It’s one thing for tech companies or civil servants to embrace this model. But can roles that demand constant human presence – healthcare, emergency services, bin collectors – do likewise without negative or costly effects? Some roles don’t easily lend themselves to shorter working patterns across teams without investment in communication, training and technology. Local authorities have big challenges to address in this area.
#4: What will clients or customers think?
This question is pertinent for service-based industries where client contact is regular throughout the working week. With organisations mostly working on a five (or even six) day format, teams must consider how a four-day week affects their relationships with clients and ability to support them.
#5: How can you build or maintain strong team culture?
Condensing five days into four obviously means there’s less time to spend at work. If the expectation is that colleagues are more productive across those four days, that leaves less time for activity that builds strong, cohesive teams. If you add in the requirement to provide cover across the full working week, it follows that teams have less opportunity to come together. And the time for those connections and discussions that build networks and spark creativity could become pinched. Looking beyond the process towards ways to maintain human connection will be vital. Work is not just about doing stuff.
Why collaboration is key
There are many more questions to address in this debate. These are the ones that seem to come up in conversations I’m having.
I sense that local authorities get that the shift from traditional work structures is not just a ‘nice-to-have’ any more. In a tough hiring market, it’s a pressing matter that’s key to attracting and retaining talent. I’ve just completed a round of interviews for a position at Distinctive; the candidates were outstanding. Flexibility came up as a key question across the board, more than pay did. I’m pleased we can respond positively and genuinely to those points, but I know we’ve got more to do.
Supporting flexibility takes a lot of work, a willingness to listen and (yes) adapt when things need to change. I’m not seeing much flexible thinking in the debate around this point.
Is a four-day week a logical extension from where we are now? We’re still forming as a small business, working from different locations. While it’s something I’m watching with interest, I think the UK has got some way to go before it catches on.
Whatever your views on it, collaborating with colleagues and having the needs of those who depend on your work should sit at the centre of your approach. Offices will remain an important part of that, but this needs to flex too.
Answering the five questions above may also persuade bosses that there’s merit in spending less time at work. It won’t change the media headlines, but in the real world we’ve got jobs to do. We need to do them in ways that are suitable for today.
We’re all on a journey with this and I’d love to hear how others are addressing these questions. Life would be boring if we all did it the same way.
Here are some things I think are worth reading if you’re interested in this subject:
- Julia Hobsbawm’s recent book, The Nowhere Office, is a refreshingly adult take on the evolution of white collar work and how employers and colleagues should collaborate.
- Make Work Better is a Substack newsletter containing great writing on culture, leadership and thoughts on how to make working life more enjoyable and rewarding.