Thoughts on the 40-hour / four-day work week.

Posted by Flux on 

24 April 2023

For the past few years there has been a growing interest in the four-day work week. Companies are trialling and adopting this ‘new’ structure. Even though there are early adopters, there are companies that are still cautiously exploring the benefits and the disadvantages of adopting this approach to work. We asked Sharon Pearce, our business transformation specialist, disruptor and solutionist, to share her thoughts on the four day work week and other workplace trends. Continue reading to find out what she thinks of the four-day work week and other approaches to talent attraction and retention.

Human-centred leadership, purpose, values, culture, workforce experience and their counterparts, the 40-hour or four-day work week, free muffins, subsidised lunches, cool workspaces with foosball tables, pause areas, and sleep pods, are bandied about like the big ticket to talent attraction and retention. 

But this kind of wooing gets stale really fast in the face of heavy workloads in difficult market conditions, increasing pressure from executive leadership, investors, and boards. This is further complicated by the ‘difficult-to-please’ customer, consumer or even more challenging – both – whose powerful opinions are voiced ever louder on social media, often underpinned by content that’s gone viral.

If you think fixing burnout in a purpose-driven and hugely diverse workforce with policies like the four-day / 40-hour work week will be easy, you might want to rethink! When these policies are implemented and not fulfilled, what you get is a burnt-out, resentful workforce ‘rusting out’ or ‘quiet quitting’ because quite frankly, you do not live up to your promises. 

This stuff takes work! And by work, I mean taking a long hard look in the mirror of organisational practices.  It’s time to review what’s at your core to enable this flexibility. 

How you ask?

A couple of options:

  1. Invest in more resources to take the fifth day workload and at least ensure customers are not left wanting.
  2. Say it like it is and call it a five-day work week but the fifth day is a silent day (no meetings) which means people have time to think, design and deliver.
  3. Or, get to the tough stuff, be bold, make choices and be explicit – through action – to avoid losing people to bad culture hidden behind gestures that in reality, are very far from so-called reality.

This is an opportunity to do some of the following:

  1. Prioritise focus. Challenging working environments are not a licence to do more but a licence to do the right things. In my experience, people default to doing more work – the buzz of activity that feeds the egos of the departments working on ‘things’, reporting on the ‘things’ we’ve done. Your advantage will come from doing what’s wanted, needed, and valued by the customer – and not what’s wanted, needed, and valued by an unsubstantiated need to be busy. Figuring out what to operationalise and then more importantly, how to create and operationalise the solutions, is the most difficult thing. In the absence of a process for solutioning – people do stuff. Solutioning as an organisational practice must be your focus. As the saying goes, there is a case for doing less – because less can literally be more. 
  2. Shift from an excuse of agile ways of working to planful delivery – this point is a re-iteration of the first. The concept of DevOps – minimal viable products (MVP’s) – iterative delivery etc. are not inherently problematic. On the contrary, this has the potential to fuel innovation and deliver value. But iterating without a plan, a vision, a north star, leads to work for the sake of work and re-work. Prioritise, be clear what is needed and how to get there. Activity works at the expense of value. Don’t fall into the proverbial trap. 
  3. Re-imagining how you manage, and reward performance is another organisational practice to re-look at. Linked to Points 1 and 2 – ask yourselves, are we rewarding activity or are we rewarding outcomes – the right outcomes – outcomes that meet our customers at the point of purchase? There is a proliferation of literature on performance management, on changes in systems and processes, some even eliminating the formal performance review and replacing it with continuous performance feedback and conversations. I say blah blah blah – this is not – and should not be rocket science. If tangible, relevant, outcomes aren’t defining the WHY we are doing things, then kill those things, stop doing them – and right back at point one – you prioritise the right stuff. 

Easier said than done, I know – but necessary. If we don’t change how leaders behave and the inherent organisational practices that lead to overwork, too much activity, too little balance – you lose the talent-retention war. Flexible work practices cannot be achieved without some mirror gazing, rather than navel gazing! I suggest you stop all the wooing and start doing. Do the four-day / 40-hour work week right – or not at all. 

By Sharon Pearce

As the founder and CEO of FreshVision Consulting, Sharon Pearce has gained over two and a half decades of experience in organisational capability-building (aligning strategy, people, process and technology) and large-scale business transformation.

She has worked with companies around the world and across 55 countries in Africa. Her global and local knowledge and experience help her lead companies’ talent and capability agendas and design human capital strategies that are practical and fit for purpose. 

In her role at Flux, she will be helping our clients, through The Solutionist Labs, to use the meaning derived from identified trend insights to create practical and actionable solutions (change). An example of this is helping companies evolve structures, operating models, business practices or even products/services offered.

Image credit: Ashlyn Ciara

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