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Is the four day working week the answer to better work-life balance?

Before the pandemic, the word “burnout” was one that was regularly whispered around the corridors of workplaces, with 40% of the millennial workforce experiencing extreme burnout at work.

​During the height of the pandemic, this generation suffered again – taking on the role of teacher to their children whilst holding down a full-time job in a new work-from-home set up, that they were sharing with their partner and kids. Suddenly there was no escape from the already high-pressure job.

​It's not surprising then that what followed this mania of intense pressure, was mass resignation. After coping for months (and in some cases years) with homeworking under the most difficult circumstances, many began to see that there were a number of benefits to the new set up (at least once they were able to pack the kids back off to school). And then a new generation entered the workforce with a new set of rules and norms, having only known remote and hybrid working.

​But with employers wanting the regain control of their workforce by bringing them back to the office and workers calling for greater protection of their work-life balance, there was a bit of a standoff. After adjusting to these extreme new ways of working, people were loathe to return to a set up where they would waste an hour every morning and evening getting to and from the office. Employers were concerned that productivity would drop and their offices would stay empty.

The four day week trial

​Into this conversation sauntered the four-day week trial. It was hailed by employees everywhere as the answer to the problem. Get paid the same amount but get an extra day a week for leisure. With a four day week, many even seemed happy enough to compromise and return to the office.

The pilot schemes being studied by researchers at Boston College, University College Dublin, Oxford University and Cambridge University saw more than 100 companies across the US, Ireland, Australia and the UK adopting a four-day week with no loss of pay. The aim was to understand the benefits for both employee and company, while identifying the limitations.

And for those companies involved, the result was fantastic – most reported a rise in productivity rather than a drop. 39% of employees reported being less stressed, and 71% reported having reduced levels of burnout at the end of the trial. Companies saw improved sales, an average of 8% increase in revenue, improved absenteeism and reduced sick leave.

Work-life balance has been a hot topic in recruitment of late. Burnout is rife across the sector, and as such, recruitment companies are looking at ways to help improve employee wellbeing.

These pilot schemes have given a snapshot into more productive working patterns. Employees have reported greater control over their schedules, cancelling unnecessary meetings, cutting wasted time on ‘filler’ tasks and redesigning work practices in ways that prioritise collaboration, productivity and motivation.

Much of this follows the concept of Parkinson’s Law – that work will expand to fill the allotted time. Whether there are 5 days or 4, the amount of work that is completed will likely be the same. The difference will be in the efficiency with which the work is completed – the breaks, the procrastination, the levels of focus. So, by reducing the allotted time for each task by 20% (and removing a couple of those “should have been an email” type meetings) each week, high productivity levels aren’t difficult to imagine.

Ways to protect work life balance

​One of the key roles of a great leadership team is finding the right balance between ensuring high levels of productivity and protecting your team from burnout. A four day working week could be one answer to this problem. But in a sector where an "office first" approach is often preferred as a way of building culture and helping to train younger employees, finding other ways of striking a good work life balance is crucial.

​Here are some other tactics to ensure that team members don’t fall foul of burnout:

​1)    Clear working hours and boundaries

Making sure that every team member knows what their hours are, and that they’re not expected to deal with queries outside of these working hours. In recruitment there are times when it's necessary to talk to candidates outside of working hours, and most people working in the sector are sensitive to this. To prevent burnout or disengagement, make sure that there are safeguards in place to prevent this from being a regular occurrence in addition to regular hours, and offer them flexibility as well as overtime pay or TOIL in return for this. When smaller, less important issues start to filter into inboxes during the evenings, the work/life boundaries begin to blur.

​2)    More efficient collaboration tools

Collaboration is a crucial part of most roles, but finding the space to do this is sometimes challenging, and too often our only collaboration touchpoints are formal meetings. With people potentially working different sets of four days, keeping in touch and collaborating will need to be more intentional, and digital tools such as Slack and Notion can help regular, efficient collaboration.

​3)    Measuring on outcomes rather than hours

Rather than clock watching, move to a system where team members are measured by their working outputs – the actual tasks or projects they complete during the week, rather than the hours they have physically worked. This requires a high level of trust between team members and managers, but where it works, it can be highly empowering and helps teams to become more autonomous and productive.

​4)    Encourage time off

It may sound counter-intuitive, but in reality, if your team are rested, if they take regular breaks from work, if they work in a culture where time off is a celebrated part of being a productive team member, you’re likely to build a team that works harder and has higher overall morale, because they feel looked after. Making sure that staff aren’t forced to come to work when sick, or unable to take requested time off will go a long way to creating a culture that avoids burnout.

​5)    Feedback

Nearly two-thirds (65%) of professionals would like to give anonymous feedback to their managers. Do you have a route for this? If the only opportunity that your team members have to provide feedback is during their one-to-ones, it’s unlikely that you’re getting a true representation of how they are feeling about work. If you want to take a true litmus test on burnout and your teams’ wellbeing, take regular, anonymous surveys, or offer an anonymous feedback scheme.

​Ultimately, a four-day working week is just one way of showing flexibility, autonomy and trust to your team members, and it’s these principles that are leading to better outcomes. Ensure that you weave them into the way you lead your teams and you’ll see better results.