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Why compressed work weeks benefit both employees and businesses

Employees at 30 companies across the UK will trial a four-day working week, with no impact on salaries, in a six-month pilot launched last month. Researchers from Cambridge University, Oxford University and Boston College, have joined forces with 4 Day Week Global and Autonomy to conduct the trial, with the aim of seeing whether productivity is impacted.

The trial will offer companies a chance to road-test this more flexible way of working, something that may have felt less feasible before COVID, but with the enforced global trial of flexible working patterns precipitated by the pandemic, many businesses have started to wake up to the rewards of flexibility in the workplace.

Four-day weeks and other flexible options:

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Flexible working: what HR needs to know to make it work

What’s holding back a flexible working Bill for employees?

HR directors predict wave of flexible working requests

I personally believe that it will take quite a while for any such scheme to be adopted and there are a lot of factors to work through. As an alternative, there are many benefits to different types of flexible working arrangements, both businesses and employees, including compressed work weeks and job-shares. 

Compressed work weeks have seen a sharp rise in popularity globally, allowing employees to do their weekly contractual hours in a flexible way.

While there are various different ways to structure a compressed week, the most popular is compressing five days of hours into four (such as, taking off a Friday, and working an extra couple of hours daily from Monday to Thursday).

Graham Joyce, founder of the flexible working platform DuoMe, notes that compressed work weeks are fast becoming more commonplace: “Compressed hours have been around for a long time, but tended to be available in positions with more strict hours. This appears to be changing with key employers, like the UK government, offering compressed hours as a working pattern that can even be searched for across their advertised jobs.”

The benefits to employees are significant and pertinent: parents of young children can gain a day a week with their child and save on childcare costs (at an estimated saving of £3,000 a year for a single child), while maintaining a full-time salary.

Those with caring responsibilities, a side hustle or further education, can gain a day dedicated to their own needs or interests. The career progression that many fear will diminish if switching to part-time hours is also maintained.

And there is plenty of evidence that shows employers see no drop in productivity, yet gain a happier and more motivated work force.

Microsoft Japan began a four-day-week trial in 2019, alongside a drive to reduce meetings times to a 30 minutes maximum, and reported a 23% reduction in electricity costs and a 40% rise in sales per employee compared with the previous year.

In November 2021, Atom Bank became the largest company in the UK to trial a four-day work week.

All employees have been given the opportunity to work 34 hours across four days with no impact on their salary, with Atom citing multiple benefits to the new model (an improved work-life balance, a greater focus on health and wellbeing, a reduced environmental impact and an increase in efficiency and productivity).

I personally became the first person in my company to adopt a compressed work week, when returning from maternity leave in 2019 to a job at one of Australia’s top banks.

While initially struggling, I found there was little information available for those looking to do compressed hours. I started my business, The Women’s Vault, in 2020 and have helped clients negotiate (and renegotiate) flexible working, many of which have become the first in their businesses to do so. 

One of the most rewarding elements of my work is seeing clients achieve better work/life balance thanks to a shift in their working schedules.

I’ve also witnessed the immeasurable benefits to businesses: rather than losing talent who would have looked elsewhere for a job with greater flexibility, companies gain a highly engaged employee, who is committed to delivering the KPIs of a full-time role, while feeling valued and being paid fairly. Women are also retained within leadership teams, addressing the lack of gender diversity that many companies have struggled with.   

Olivia Bath is founder of The Women's Vault