There’s been some interesting media coverage of one country’s move to a 4-day working week. The government’s aims are admirable: to give employees more time to spend with their families etc. But it will be interesting to see how this impacts their economy, provision of services from the government to the public and how employees respond in kind.
Will it last, or will there be an eventual backlash against it, as there has been in France, in response to their 35-hour working week?
The story sparked a lot of commentary in the UK about flexible working styles and the challenges employees face when they opt for a “non-traditional” working arrangement. Flexible working arrangements can make all the difference to employees’ engagement and productivity and can be a key way to retain key talent whose personal circumstances would otherwise require them to leave work.
But it’s not all good news. Without clear contracting between employer and employee, either or both parties can be disappointed and frustrated with the results. Without agreed structures for flexible working arrangements, clarity on expectations and even piloting of such arrangements, employees may end up working longer hours, find their personal life is negatively impacted by demands from work.
While managers can experience a perceived loss of supervisory control over their employees and even end up engaging in “micro manager” style behaviour.
Employees can also have unrealistic expectations of just how easy flexible working can be. Images of long, lazy three-day weekends are quickly replaced with longer, more demanding work days for the remainder of the week. This applies particularly to compressed hours schedules, which can prove particularly difficult to adjust to.
If I work a four-day week, I should expect that my colleagues won’t contact me on one of my days off, except in dire emergencies. If I’m working to a compressed hours schedule (where, for example, I would cover my contracted 40 hours over 4 rather than 5 days), I should be able to manage my workload without bringing work home. But I’ll need the support of my manager and my colleagues to ensure I don’t experience spillover of either workload or stress into my home life.
Flexibility needs to work in both directions. It’s a reasonable expectation, that if business demands require it, I might need to move one of my ‘off’ days. Given sufficient notice, this shouldn’t be a problem. But this focus is on the logistics of hours and working arrangements.
What about the wider impact?
Will my flexible working arrangements – aside from my productivity and contribution to the business – have a negative impact on my progression and reward? Will I be considered for promotion, or will my four day week be viewed by senior stakeholders as a lack of commitment to my career or even their business? Will my need for flexibility be perceived as a “hassle” for managers? Will my potential as a manager of others be ignored due to a perception that managers “need to work full time”?
These aren’t wild speculations, but actual feedback I’ve had from people working to flexible arrangements. Regardless of how successfully they fulfil the requirements of their role, many employees working flexibly report feeling somehow semi-detached from their employers.
Until flexible working arrangements lose their stigma, many employees will shy away from requesting them due to fear of how others will perceive it and how it will affect their career progression. Yes, flexible working does require organisations to change how they approach processes: everything from payroll to contracts, allocation of holidays, scheduling team meetings and job design.
Line managers too need support and guidance on how to manage employees who work flexibly, how to implement flexibility fairly and manage expectations on both sides.
But all of these are surmountable if a focus is kept on the goal: keeping great talent in-house.
The potential rewards greatly outweigh the work required to adapt to flexibility.