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Does a four-day week undermine true flexibility?

Suggestions that the adoption of a four-day working week will result in less flexibility for workers have been rejected by organisations that have already made four-day weeks permanent.

As 30 new firms sign up to trials of a four-day week, joining pioneers such as Canon and People and Transformational HR, suggestions have been made that this model could actually strip away employees’ ability to work more flexibly across the entire week, by shoe-horning them into an even more rigid routines.

Rich Westman, CEO at employee wellbeing company, Kaido, said: “The problem with these trials is that they focus heavily on maintaining 100% productivity from employees with 20% less work time.

"This could lead to higher levels of stress during those four days, as employees fight to ensure tasks are completed.”

But companies that have already successfully made a four-day week permanent have denied this is the case.

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Consultancy business Wilson Fletcher has operated a four-day week for the last three years. Speaking to HR magazine, CEO Mark Wilson said: “The key to this model is understanding why you are doing it. We don’t ask staff to do five days’ work in four – so we’re not trying to make people do a compressed week. This of itself means staff don’t feel stressed.

“As for it potentially reducing flexibility – we are very mindful of this in theory, but we have flexibility inbuilt into our way of working still, so staff can carry on picking up their kids if they need to, as long as the time is made up later.”

According to Wilson, success is all down to how a four-day week is managed, and he argues having every Friday off gives back flexibility to staff as they have more time to do “life-stuff” during those three days off.

He said: “Giving staff the extra day off gives them the time they need to do all their personal admin. The key is planning. All we ask is that staff come in at least twice a week (Tuesday and Thursdays), and after that, their time is their own.”

Recruitment company, MRL Consulting, argues a similar point. It has allowed staff to be off every Friday since May 2019, and its own research reveals 87% of staff have also reported a significant improvement in their mental health.

According to CEO David Stone, employees tell him they don’t feel they've lost any sense of flexibility.

Stone told HR magazine: “Whether it creates less flexibility is certainly an interesting question to ask but it’s not our experience. We decided we would still offer flexible working too – so we still have people on reduced hours, for instance.

“And people can choose to work partly on that fifth day if they want to, so in this sense the four days are not set in stone. It's more that they are encouraged.” 

Stone argued this is a good compromise: “We’re taking a pragmatic approach to the four-day week, using it as a guide to give staff control so they don’t feel burned out.”

He added: “We’ve helped staff by providing training on how to make better use of their time too.”

Staff clearly welcome this too.

Neil Ward, MRL’s head of resourcing said: “If anything urgent comes in on a Friday I can still attend to it remotely, yet I feel I have more time to attend to personal matters without it affecting my working day. It also opens up more time for relaxing on long weekends.

“Gone are the days of leaving the office late on a Friday, weary from the week with two days to recover before doing it all over again.”