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Flexible working: how to ask your boss about working a 4-day week

Valencia’s government is looking into rolling out a four-day work week, following successful schemes in countries including New Zealand. Are you feeling inspired and considering requesting a four-day work week or flexible working arrangement from your boss? Stylist meets the women who are working a shorter week, and explores how to broach the topic with your employer.

If your boss offered you the opportunity to condense your work week into four days, what would be your reaction? Would you jump at the chance, or would you prefer to stick to the usual nine to five working pattern, five days a week?

Recently, debates surrounding the four-day week and flexible working have set the working world ablaze. 

Going into the 2019 general election, one of Labour’s policies outlined the blueprint for a 32-hour full time working week that would be implemented “over time as the economy grows”. Meanwhile, Finland’s new prime minister, Sanna Marin, dominated the news when she floated the idea of a four-day work week with a streamlined six-hour work day during a panel discussion before she became PM.

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So what exactly does a four-day work week look like? As it stands, the average UK full time working week weighs in at about 35 hours. Generally, unless in specifically outlined cases, someone switching over to a four-day working week would still work all those hours (and get paid the same) but within four days, rather than five. 

Unless it’s your preference, the four days don’t have to rigidly run from Monday to Thursday or Tuesday to Friday but are meant to offer an element of flexibility around both the business’ and the employee’s needs. So far so good, right?

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Flexible working: what would you do with an extra day off?

Four-day work week: the pros… and the cons

There have been success stories of the four-day working week. Microsoft Japan found that staff productivity leapt by 40% after a one-month trial of the four-day work week over summer 2019. Similarly, Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand based finance company, garnered worldwide interest when it slashed the working week of its 240 staff to four days and saw a 20% rise in productivity along with an increase in profits and a boost to staff wellbeing.

It seems that many of us Brits are on board with the concept of a four-day working week, too. In 2018, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) reported that “eight in 10 workers (81%) want to reduce working time in the future – with 45% opting for a four-day working week”. As a result, the TUC advises that “the UK should consider how to move to a four-day week over the course of this century”. 

Unsurprisingly, however, there’s a great deal of opposition. A 2019 Labour-backed report, written by British economic historian Robert Skidelsky, found that some methods of reducing hours could impose “a ‘real’ cost on employees” because “in the standard employer-employee relationship, shortening hours by extracting more effort in the remaining hours is not a way of reducing the amount of work, but simply redistributing it”. 

Skidelsky further asserts that the extra day off is “purchased at the price of increased exhaustion”, flying in the face of what he believes to be the true promise of reducing working hours in order to improve well-being.

Flexible working: trials of the shorter working week have shown employee stress levels drop significantly.

However, Andrew Barnes, the founder of Perpetual Guardian, believes otherwise. Credited by many as a pioneer in the future of work, Barnes’ exploration of the potential of reduced working hours began in 2017, when he read an Economist article that stated that productivity in UK workplaces was as low as two and half hours a day.

“This started me thinking about whether this was the case in my business and if my people could improve productivity, could I give my people time off?” he tells Stylist. When the company began trialling four-day weeks on full pay at the beginning of 2018, he found that in spite of some scepticism among his management team, most of his employees were excited to try it. At the end of the trial, 78% of employees stated that they were able to “successfully manage their work-life balance” while employee stress levels had decreased by 7%. 

Flexible working: "On my day off, I work remotely on personal projects."

Four-day work week: the reality

Finding a better balance between work, and life beyond work, has been critical for Angela, a freelance in-house journalist. “A four-day week gives me the best of both worlds,” she tells Stylist. “I’m able to have steady in-house employment which pays for the rent and bills. On my day off, I work remotely on personal projects and freelance writing for other publications. My mental health is so much better with a four-day working week compared to five-day full-time employment because I’m not stuck in the office and I have a better work-life balance.”

For Joanna, a PR manager at digital marketing agency Reflect Digital, having her Friday off means that she can have a day for herself: “I go for a run or go to the gym, do some yoga, see my family or meet my friends for coffee. I can have an extended long weekend without booking a holiday,” she tells Stylist. When Joanna’s CEO carried out a staff survey a year after the four-day working week was implemented, they found that staff wellness and productivity had increased by 20%, while job satisfaction had rocketed by 90%. 

Ruth Cooper-Dickson, founder and managing director of global wellbeing consultancy Champs, also rolled out a four-day working week within her business, which yielded positive results. “The benefit I’ve seen in my team is a more energised workforce with higher performance. They feel valued and I found that when it’s all hands on deck for a big project, they are always willing to go the extra mile.”

However, alongside having more time to decompress on a day off and a more focused approach to work, the hours can prove tricky for some, considering that the workload of a five-day week is now being crammed into four. Joanna has found that the longer working days work in her favour: “I do feel I am a lot more productive in my job, knowing I’ve got to get my work done for the week by the end of the day on Thursday,” she says. 

On the other hand, former size and fit specialist Hannah found the reduced working week to be too gruelling. “I still worked a 37.5 hour week but condensed into four days, which translated into 10-hour days,” she explains. She adds that she found it particularly exhausting as she was constantly interacting with people and there wasn’t enough independent work to break it up. “On the days I was at work, I barely had time to go to the gym or even cook dinner.”

Like many freelancers and contractors who manage their own workloads, some people who work four-day weeks face the challenge of creating some kind of routine for their day off. Additionally Emma, a full-time employee at a local council, says she struggles with getting other people to acknowledge the boundaries of the shorter working week: “Sometimes I am still expected to answer questions on my day off and other employees don’t respect that I shouldn’t be working that day,” she says. “Other people think that I’m doing less work, even though I do 37 hours, just in a more compact way. I think people think I’m part-time.”

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Four-day work week: how to talk to your boss about flexible working

While the four-day working week remains a contentious abstract for some, it’s a liveable and sustainable reality for others. If a shorter working week holds some appeal for you, before approaching your boss, ensure that your schedule could actually allow you get your workload done in four days and how flexible you could be with your days off. 

When outlining your thoughts to your manager, it’s worth including some of the arguments Barnes highlights in his book, The 4 Day Week: “In the end, it is about making the business more productive and the staff more engaged. It’s the only employee benefit you can do which doesn’t cost a penny, but adds to the bottom line.”

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This feature was first published in 6 February 2020

The 4 Day Week - How The Flexible Work Revolution Can Increase Productivity, Profitability And Well-being, And Create A Sustainable Future by Andrew Barnes (£13.99, Piatkus) is out now

Images: Getty, Unsplash