The Four Day Week – Workplace Panacea or Faustian Pact?

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

Here’s a debate to enliven your lunchtime chat, and because pretty much everyone around the table has had a job, or goes to school, everyone will have an opinion. In October 2023, ministers warned English councils not to adopt a four-day week regardless of encouraging data from South Cambridgeshire District Council’s positive trial. 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. Numerous trials expound positive benefits including enhancing employee motivation, loyalty, health and wellbeing…doesn’t it all sound a bit too good to be true?

The environmental not-for-profit organisation City to Sea was an early adopter, enticed by the multiple-dividend benefits for people and the planet. As City to Sea’s Head of Development, I wouldn’t have been able to undertake an MSc in Strategy, Change and Leadership, alongside job and family, if it hadn’t been for the four day week. So, when the time came to choose my dissertation topic, it felt like a fitting tribute. Plus, I had with lots of data at my fingertips as we’d been on the four day journey for 18 months.

I was interested in exploring the gap between the rhetoric and the reality. City to Sea’s experience of shortening working hours had not yet proven to be the paradise painted in the published studies. We still had significant staff churn, our people felt burnt out and anxious, our culture even seemed to have taken a negative shift. What was going on? I speculated that self-interest inspired unanimous support for the four 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 understood. So, I undertook a qualitative study to explore the unintended consequences of transition to shorter working hours on City to Sea’s culture.

It’s ‘not all unicorns and rainbows’!

The transition to shorter working hours resulted in 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 four day week trims out the fat. Plus as 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 emerged. There is an important caveat to this rule, which is that successful transition requires significant leadership planning, management intervention and roots up work flow 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 weaknesses. This exposed ‘fault lines’ running through the organisation resulting in increased stress and anxiety (the very symptoms the four day week was supposed 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. Put in place mitigations such as deploying cultural strengths to counter the impact of the faults being revealed. Create a psychologically safe environment to enable roots-up innovation from staff to reimagine their workflow. Some people will possess the cultural tools better suited to enduring change and being productive in shorter working so encourage them to lead.

Practice what you preach

City to Sea’s leaders had not been able to model the change themselves and were continuing to work on Fridays. This negatively impacted culture as staff attempted to interpret mixed messages from above. The resulting lack of trust and employee cynicism blocked the change from embedding and compromised leaders’ authenticity. Staff were frustrated by a reduction or 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 good 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 four day week first and then are empowered to implement the change upstream.

Using culture to manage trade-offs

Even adoption of benign and welcome changes  can impact culture and competitiveness. Staff at City to Sea felt forced to make uncomfortable sacrifices due to time pressures which caused 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 the more confident realists on the team. The blaze and burn culture persisted and, ironically, although a four day week is designed to generate more inclusive workplace, City to Sea was becoming less diverse, in part 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 businesses 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!

The City to Sea out on a team day, cleaning the banks of the River Avon

Persistent elements of City to Sea’s culture prevailed throughout the transition. Both panacea and Faustian pact experiences emerged as the team shared their stories. 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 four 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 four day week leap? Resoundingly YES, many of the benefits, such as attracting and retaining talent and contributing to our net zero strategy, are paying off! It is a constant and live conversation and City to Sea actively puts culture to work and continues to advocate for this brave reimagining of working practices.

Written by Jane Martin, MSc Strategy Change and Leadership alumnus.

Learn more about MSc Strategy, Change and Leadership.

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