In my last post (available here) I explored the arguments for and against the 4-day working week, outlining perceived opportunities and challenges of the concept. I also examined emerging evidence on the benefits for both businesses and employees. In this post I’ll be reviewing the claims in each side of the argument from my own perspective.
If you have experience or views on the concept, please leave a message in the comments section.
Intro – why did I want to go to a 4-day week?
“…the men I know want something more from family life than the kiss at breakfast and few hours of playtime on the weekend that their busy jobs allow. Yet that hope is often thwarted, because, despite a massive increase in female employment, society remains infected with the outdated breadwinner ideology.”
This passage from the article: Flexibility at work isn’t just about women – men want more from family life, too’ by Anuska Asthana (Guardian, 2016), represented exactly how I felt on the birth of my child.
I wanted to spend more time with him, help him grow and support my partner. I didn’t want to be a weekend dad or see him fleetingly in the evenings.
I’m not going to touch on the workplace challenges women still face throughout pregnancy and maternity leave, despite legislation aimed to prevent it. The disappointing facts are available for all to see at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2018 here and in the recent groundbreaking 2019 Royal Society Science Book Prize winner: Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Peez.
How did I move to a 4 day a week routine?
Partly opportunity; partly circumstance.
Being a contractor comes with challenges (no sick or annual leave) and opportunities, like greater control over working hours.
During a contract renewal negotiation a client made it clear they wanted to extend my contract for a further 6 months, allowing me to negotiate a reduced working week. Following this, I now limit my working hours to a maximum of 4 days a week (currently working 3 days a week).
Pay vs working hours – compressed hours vs reduced hours
An early mistake in those contract negotiations was in turning down compressed working hours (working the same number of hours in a compressed 4 days), instead opting for 20% reduction in hours with corresponding pay reduction; taking a hit in the salary as a pay-off for more time with my child. I didn’t want to return home late in the evening 4 days a week, missing out on evenings with my newborn and not being able to help my partner look after a small and demanding new human.
In reality, the team I was working for had come to rely on me; the workload didn’t decrease, I just had to delivery as much in less time and, on more occasions than I was comfortable with, working late to meet that demand. I found it hard to increase my own productivity when other team members and stakeholder continued working at their regular pace and efficiency.
I realise now that while reducing the number of hours I worked, I had increased my productivity (as more recent evidence demonstrates). I was producing as much in 4 days (plus additional personal sacrifice) as I was in 5, but being paid 20% less for it.
This experience has taught me to think differently about how I charge for my time and skills. If I had the opportunity again, I would opt for compressed hours on this occasion, after all, I was still delivering the same amount. In more recent new contracts, I establish a 4-day week from the outset, increasing my day-rate to make up for the reduced hours.
Has working a 4-day week improved my work/life balance?
Emphatically, yes! More than expected.
An extra day to get through daily admin and chores makes a huge difference. It’s amazing how much personal time is taken up doing laundry, paying bills, shopping, fixing broken ‘things’, doing DIY… weekends can feel like a rush just to be ready for the following week.
An extra day means I can spend quality time with my baby, reading, playing, teaching, and feel mentally and physically prepared for the next week.
Has working a 4-day week helped reduce my stress levels?
Initially, stress levels increased as I delivered as much in a shorter period of time. The 20% pay cut also hit hard. This has improved since starting a new contract where I’m able to set working limits right from the start, while charging more for my expertise.
Still, pressure to deliver as much in a shorter time-period is stress inducing. Each day requires absolute focus; by the time I walk out the office at the end of the day I’m more mentally and physically exhausted than usual.
Managers play a large role in this, setting the pace of work, workload, support and working time expectations. There have been occasions where over demand has inevitably led to an increase in the working week, sometimes requiring me to find childcare at short notice.
Am I more committed to my job?
The answer has to be: no.
I’ve already left one employer that allowed me to work a 4-day week for another that offered to pay more for the same conditions, and I’d do so again despite how disappointed my employer was.
Realistically, as more companies offer 4-day working weeks without the 20% reduction in pay, this will likely to be the outcome. It’s a market and employees will switch for better offers.
Has it impacted on the ability to socialise with colleagues?
A criticism of 4-day working week concept is this will lead to reduced opportunities to socialise with colleagues, impacting on teamwork and employee mental health.
This hasn’t impacted me. As a contractor working 6 month contracts and a young baby, opportunities to socialise with colleagues are limited. I pick my networking opportunities carefully.
I doubt working less days would impact on socialising opportunities, and frankly the suggestion feels a little condescending. If you want to socialise with colleagues, network, go out for lunch, then the opportunities will always be there.
On my most recent contract, my employer decided not to include me in her bi-weekly 2 hour team meetings. Her reasoning for this decision were sound, she wanted to maximise my value for the 3 days a week I’m contracted for. I fully agreed with this decision at the time. However, 2 months into the contract she’s now included me in the team meetings, allowing the team to get to know me and my project better. This means they’re more able to support the project when needed, and give them the opportunity to learn from the work I do.
Am I more productive working a 4-day week?
This is the million dollar question: am I more productive in the fewer hours I’m in the office?
The answer has to be a definite: yes.
Being in the office for fewer hours means I need to absolutely focus on what I do to make sure it’s delivered on time and to the quality I’m employed to deliver.
I’ve built a reputation for timeliness and quality; I work hard and I deliver. Working reduced hours means I need to focus even more than usual. This often means that those I work for and with can forget I’m only available 3 or 4 days a week, so I do need to quietly remind them when organising meetings and setting deadlines.
Will increased productivity be sustainable?
I’ve been working this way for over a year now, and I appear to be maintaining that productivity. The times I slip are when I’m working a rare full 5-day week due to demand, on these occasions I can feel the mental temptation to switch off or let external distractions creep in. In those weeks I find myself needing to take longer lunch breaks (usually I don’t take them at all), or engaging in social conversations with colleagues.
Strangely enough, I never feel quite as satisfied with the quality of work I deliver in a 5-day week – it feels ground out, forced and of poorer quality; for both professional work and personal chores.
In short, when working a 3 or 4-day week I have the energy and focus to deliver more than I can working a full week. My employer gets every ounce of value from the time they pay for and while I have the personal time I need to engage with my child, get my personal life in order and get a sufficient amount of rest. In all, I’m far happier this way.
My own conclusions
For me, working a 4 day week has been a revelation, it’s changed my life in ways which I am reluctant to go back from. I’d encourage any individual to seriously consider the option if they have the opportunity, although I’d suggest people think carefully about compressed hours rather than reduced hours if they are looking to change their current job arrangements.
For businesses considering adopting a 4-day working week policy, I’m starting to be convinced by the idea you can increase productivity sufficiently to make up for reducing staff working hours, while receiving a range of additional benefits from a happier, more appreciative workforce.
Anushka Asthana, 23/03/2016, Both parents deserve more than a kiss at breakfast and a few hours of playtime on the weekend, The Guardian (online: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/mar/23/flexibility-at-work-isnt-just-about-women-men-want-more-from-family-life-too?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other)
Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2018 – Pregnancy and maternity discrimination research findings, (online at: https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/managing-pregnancy-and-maternity-workplace/pregnancy-and-maternity-discrimination-research-findings)
The Royal Society, 23/09/2019, Caroline Criado Perez’s ground-breaking gender bias exposé wins 2019 Royal Society Science Book Prize, (online: https://royalsociety.org/news/2019/09/winner-2019-insight-investment-science-writing-prize/)
Caroline Criado-Perez, 07/03/2019, Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Penguin Books, London, ISBN: 9781784741723 (Purchase online at:https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/111/1113605/invisible-women/9781784741723.html)
Mist of Management, 26/09/2019, The 4-day working week – does it work? (on line at: https://mistofmanagement.net/2019/09/26/the-4-day-working-week-does-it-work/)