The 4-Day Week

Unicorns and rainbows or a deal with the devil?

Written by Jane Martin – Head of Development at City to Sea.

Want to work 20% less hours for the same pay?  

Here’s a debate to enliven your 2024 your lunchtime conversations, and because pretty much everybody around the table has had a job, or goes to school, everyone will have an opinion. The 4-Day Week is a political hot potato, in October 2023 ministers warned English councils not to adopt a four day week regardless of encouraging data from South Cambridgeshire District Councils trial , which showed that staff sickness and turnover reduced by a third which unlocked significant savings on the council spend with staffing agencies. In fact, working hours have been reducing over the past century, it’s a trend that’s set to continue, alongside working flexibly, remotely and smarter. Academics are interested too. Numerous trials, from insurance brokers in New Zealand to public sector workers in Reykjavik, expound the positive benefits: to enhance employee motivation, loyalty, health and wellbeing. But doesn’t it all sound a bit too good to be true? 

City to Sea was an early adopter, enticed by the multiple-dividend benefits for people and the planet.  Last year, when most organisations found recruitment a challenge, when we advertised new roles we were spoiled for choice. Talented candidates reported that the 4-Day Week gave us the edge over other employers and we even won a Global Good Award for our workplace culture. As City to Sea’s Head of Development, I wouldn’t have been able to take an MSc in Strategy, Change and Leadership, alongside job and family, if it hadn’t been for the 4-Day Week. So, when the time came to choose my dissertation topic, it felt like a fitting tribute. Plus, I had with lots of juicy data at my fingertips as we’d been on the 4-Day Week journey for 18 months.  

While there was resounding support for shortening working hours on our team, I was interested to explore the gap between the rhetoric and the reality. In May 2023 City to Sea’s experience had not yet proven to be the panacea painted in the published studies. We were attracting talented staff but also still had significant staff churn, some people felt burnt out and anxious, our culture seemed to have taken a negative shift. What was going on? I speculated that self-interest inspired unanimous support for the 4-Day Week (didn’t you answer yes to the question above?) but that a deal with the devil was made before the true costs of the bargain were realised. So, I undertook a qualitative study to explore the unintended consequences of transition to shorter working hours on City to Sea’s company culture. 

It’s ‘not all unicorns and rainbows’! 

The transition to shorter working hours had unintended consequences on City to Sea’s culture. A sense of being under-resourced, overstretched and fatigued had arisen throughout the transition. This could be attributed to other factors such as financial pressures or working from home, but we felt confident that trying to squeeze five days’ work into four could also be a cause.  

Many of the studies confidently stated that 100% of work can be completed in 80% of the time for 100% of the pay. The assumption behind this is that people are inefficient, you simply can’t work full pelt for 40 hours a week, and the 4-Day Week trims out the fat. Plus, if people are happier and healthier they are more efficient and motivated when they are working. In City to Sea’s experience, this is where the Faustian Pact, between time and productivity, emerged. There is an important caveat to the rule, successful transition requires significant leadership planning, management intervention, workflow re-design AND culture has a critical role to play in enabling change.

Such a seismic shift will cause fault lines

At the time of the study the change had not successfully embedded; a period of prolonged uncertainty had exerted pressure on the team and amplified the organisation’s existing cultural challenges. This exposed ‘fault lines’ resulting in increased stress and anxiety (the very symptoms the 4-Day Week was introduced to counteract). Leaders should proceed with caution! Before undertaking the change take a good honest look at your culture, mapping cracks that might become fault lines under the pressure of change. For example, weaknesses with communication,  strategy or business model. Put in place mitigations such as deploying your organisations cultural strengths to counter the impact of the faults being exacerbated. Create a psychologically safe environment to enable rootsup innovation from staff to reimagine their workflow. Some people will possess cultural tools better suited to enduring change and being productive in shorter working hours than others so encourage them to lead. 

Practice what you preach

City to Sea’s leaders have still not been able to model the change in full and are continuing to work on Fridays around 50% of the time. This can negatively impact culture as staff attempt to interpret mixed messages from above. The resulting lack of trust and employee cynicism blocks the change from embedding and compromises leaders’ authenticity.  Similarly leaders feel that work pressures mean that Fridays are an essential opportunity to catch up. Staff have been frustrated by a reduction of working hours not being accompanied by a reduction in expected output. Businesses should consider the impact of leadership behaviours and the style of leadership in play – this also presents a nice opportunity for further research. Support mechanisms need to be put into place to ensure that leaders are genuinely able to model the change. Leaders should share compelling and realistic narratives about their experience, the challenges, the benefits and keep the vision alive. Businesses might want to consider a phased approach where the most junior staff transition to the 4-Day Week first and then are empowered to implement the change upstream.  

The how matters – consider flexibility across the week so that when something happens on a Friday, as it inevitably will unless all business align on office hours, then there are colleagues available to respond. 

Using culture to manage trade-offs

Even when faced with a benign and welcome change like the 4-Day Week, making it work on the ground could impact culture and competitiveness. Staff being forced to make uncomfortable sacrifices due to time pressure causes anxiety. Creativity and innovation, positive communication, reflectiveness and team management were all falling to the bottom of the list, further compounded by homeworking (another area ripe for further study) Those with a tendency towards perfectionism and control experienced greater anxiety than more confident realists on the team. The blaze and burn culture persisted and, ironically, although a 4-Day Week is designed to generate more inclusive workplace, City to Sea has become marginally less diverse because only those that could deliver a high volume of quality work in a short period of time could cope. This should be considered by business embarking on the transition as studies have identified a positive relationship between team diversity and effectiveness. Mapping what the trade-offs might be and considering how to deploy cultural strengths to address these is therefore advised.

Don’t fight your culture work it!  

Persistent elements of City to Sea’s culture prevailed throughout the transition and clear panacea and Faustian pact experiences emerged as the team reconciled the old and new paradigms. Culture should be put to work for change, for example by aligning the change with existing cultural strengths to prevent relapse. City to Sea has a strong connection with nature, celebrating the time spent in the countryside enabled by shorter working hours presents a useful sensemaking opportunity to enable transition. Grafting the new desired behaviours onto existing cultural assets in the planning stage would enhance the chances of success and alleviate change induced anxiety. 

The most useful way to approach the transition to 4-Day Week would be to start with culture. Develop the cultural assets required to maintain high quality output in a shorter period first (strong strategy, empowered team, flat structure, quick decision making) and then transition to shorter working hours once culture is fit for purpose. Ignore culture and prepare for unintended consequences.  

But couldn’t you just plan your way out of the problem using one of the classic change- management frameworks? It certainly could have helped City to Sea, but there is a deep interdependence between change and culture and only by really addressing peoples’ behaviours can the necessary transition stick. Unless we want to return to an era of extreme command and control, evidence of which can already be seen in digital platforms measuring productivity and the likes of Elon Musk demanding staff return to the office, culture is the crucial tool to developing a healthy, empowered and resilient workforce. Knowing what we know now would City to Sea still take the 4-Day Week leap? Resoundingly YES! It enables real time for personal development, self-care and focus on family or out of work connections. Ultimately, colleagues love it and cherish the freedom it brings. It enriches our business overall rather that detracting from it and every post we advertise attracts a high number of talented applicants to choose from. We have endured the recruitment crises with relative ease.  However, the 4-Day week does remain a live conversation here at City to Sea, we’re currently exploring how it relates to other innovations such as remote working and how can we use Artificial Intelligence to focus our precious time to the greatest impact?. We continue to put culture to work and proudly advocate for this brave reimagining of working practices. 

Want to find out more about our journey, we’re happy to share and support other businesses. Contact [email protected].

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