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Workplace psychologist on how the four-day week will divide employees

By Jeremy Snape, Workplace psychologist and keynotes speaker

January 28, 2022 | 6 min read

Last week, around 30 British companies joined a new pilot scheme that will see them trial a four-day working week for six months. Career mindset coach Jeremy Snape explains why it might not be for everyone.

Empty office

30 companies in England will be trialing the four-day week for the next six months

Led by the Four Day Week Global campaign in partnership with Think Tank Autonomy and researchers at Oxford University, Boston College and Cambridge University, the four-day week trials are aiming to welcome in a new way of working, with many citing heightened productivity, improved mental and physical health of employees and a more sustainable work environment as huge pros to the concept.

Taking place from June 2022 to December 2022, employees at the firms taking part will be expected to maintain their current productivity level while working one day less a week.

The pilot comes at an interesting time for the British workplace. Following two years of turbulent office policy, and many companies adopting flexible working styles, making another new change definitely comes with arguments both for and against.

The question that quickly comes to mind, and in particular for high-pressured roles such as marketing, PR and communications, is if you choose to change tact and operate at a four-day working week, what happens to the clients?

For employees, the pros are pretty clear – less work for similar pay and the chance to spend Fridays as you please. For clients, it could cause a move in project goalposts, the perception of less work for the fee, and the issue of communication across non-working days. In an industry that’s always ‘on,’ how do clients make peace with the people on their effective payroll taking a full day off?

If teams were to stagger their day ‘off,’ the problem of communication can be somewhat resolved. The concept of fluid working is rapidly rising, with the pandemic forcing us to adapt to a new world. In podcast ‘Inside the Mind of Champions’ I interviewed futurist James Wallman, who predicted that experiences and autonomy would become more valued than buying more ‘stuff’ with increased salaries – the four-day work week could prove him correct.

We all have different preferences and motivations, so the four-day work week could divide the workforce rather than bring it together into harmonious collaboration. For some, the weekly opportunity to plan a getaway for the extended weekends will appeal, but what about the financially and target-driven employees that are desperate to bag that new client or campaign? There is a big difference between policy and reality, and even though Fridays may be signaled as the new switch off, high-climbers may seize this as the day to get ahead.

The fight for leads, new contracts and ‘aways-on’ client comms may produce success, while the work/life balance brigade head away on their digital detox.

Will we see more surveillance of who logged into the company servers at which time – or will they be inaccessible? Is ‘Fun Fridays’ a flexible option or a rigid policy? What does this mean for the people who see their work team as their social circle, whose mental health relies on their sense of belonging?

The other element here is the silent expectations of our leaders. Will their Thursday afternoon emails hint at expected progress to be made before Monday? There’s only one thing worse than working on a Friday, and that’s working on a Friday when you’re supposed to be on holiday.

I don’t think this will change our curiosity for comparison, it might just change the parameters. People will become dually competitive, firstly about how much they can achieve in their working hours and then brag about how much they can switch off in their downtime. Instagram will explode with perfect cakes, holidays and bodies if people get an extra day to hone them, and for the lazy doomscrollers, it’s a whole new day to become more envious and frustrated.

From a company’s perspective, they will need to find new ways of measuring and comparing outputs at scale, and this will see HR departments shift their focus from static policy and compliance into dynamic high-performance departments.

For me, the four-day work week is a great philosophical, commercial and social challenge. It highlights a paradox – in the digital age, our clients, contacts and communities expect service 24/7, but as individual humans, we crave freedom and work-life balance. The four-day work week seems too simplistic, and while it may attract talent in the short term, the reality may be less enjoyable. Perhaps businesses could offer more autonomy and choice on where and when people work, accompanied by reduced hours or earlier finishes on a Friday. As machines mop up the repetitive tasks we’ll become hyper-human deploying our empathy, creativity and collaborative problem-solving to crucial societal issues. We’ll also be judged by our impact, not our busyness – meaning outputs will become the new currency instead of hours worked.

My guess is that a new wave of flexible working will phase in, where companies that offer the perfect blend of emotional support, personal autonomy and professional challenge will win.

Jeremy Snape is a career mindset coach and keynote speaker.

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