A compressed work week is less about when you work, and more about how you work, says this expert.
It sounds great on paper: Fridays off in Summer, eliminating hump days or an entire year of long-weekends, but a lot of planning and strategy needs to go into setting up a compressed work week. Flexibility is a hot commodity in the current job market, and offering employees the option to shorten their work week in some way could be a powerful tool for both attraction and retention.
When done correctly, a compressed work week can boost productivity and employees’ happiness. But it isn’t a quick fix. It’s a business strategy that requires careful planning and collaboration at all levels of the organisation, says Donna McGeorge, speaker, facilitator and author.
“If you’re not thinking about compressed work weeks right now – if you’re not at least having the conversation – you probably should,” she said in a recent webinar.
McGeorge’s webinar took a deep-dive into shorter work weeks and the opportunity they presents to “reset people and focus more on balance, life and happiness”.
Here are some interesting points to keep in mind.
1. It’s not just about taking Fridays off
In 2016, Norwegian chef Esben Holmboe Bang cut his restaurant’s workweek down to a rotation of three days to give employees, front of house and kitchen staff, four consecutive days off each week. In an industry well-known for its intense labour conditions, this change was instrumental in improving employee morale and creativity, and reducing burnout.
In an article for Vice, Holmboe Bang said he saw the impacts immediately.
“People were rested, they had higher energy, they would walk through the doors at the start of the week with a sense of ‘this is where I want to be today.'”
But it wasn’t as simple as flipping the ‘closed’ sign on the restaurant on a Tuesday afternoon.
Holmboe Bang had to reconfigure when he’d offer dining services, hire more staff and think strategically about time management. For example, with the same employees now working across the lunch and dinner rush, he needed to give them longer breaks. So rather than having people spend hours polishing cutlery in the middle of the day, he just brought more cutlery.
While the cost of adding to his headcount and buying more supplies has meant he’s seen impacts to his bottom line, this is something Holmboe Bang is willing to give up in order to see the better performance and wellbeing of his staff.
“Not all jobs can compress hours in the same way,” says McGeorge. “And it certainly doesn’t suit all types of jobs and roles in one organisation. It’s going to be really tricky when you’ve got a really diverse workforce, where some jobs are suited to [flexibility] and others are not.”
This is why McGeorge is a proponent of thinking about flexibility more holistically.
For example, a compressed work week – longer days for more time off – or flexibility around start and end end times creates alternative approaches for organisations that don’t have the option to operate on a four-day work week – such as those in health, education or manufacturing.
Rather than shutting down for a whole day, it’s about thinking about how you can treat employees’ hours differently. For instance, you could shorten their days or operate on a rotating schedule. Taking an hours-based approach rather than only thinking of it as ‘a Friday off’ could help companies of all sizes and stages to turn this into a positive, sustainable change.
2. Change needs to match your business strategy
New Zealand-based statutory trust business Perpetual Guardian found great success with the four-day work week model, but “part of their strategy is to be a highly enjoyable place of work, and the kind of place where they care about the happiness of the people,” says McGeorge.
Perpetual was clear on its ‘why’ before embarking on a new way of working, and it put strict measurements in place to ensure nothing slipped through the cracks as a result of its people working less days in the office.
(Read HRM’s case study about Perpetual’s four-day work week here).
Before introducing flexible work hours, be that a four-day work week or a compressed work week, employers need to consider the strategic direction of the organisation, its values and where the business wants to be in five or 10 years.
“Like any change, it has to start with the strategy of the organisation,” says McGeorge.
First, she recommends identifying how a compressed work week can become part of the business strategy: what business values would it align to, and how would it help the business meet critical success factors? Such values might include employee retention, employee engagement, flexible work practices, or a reduction in sick leave taken.
But there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, says McGeorge.
“We have to remember that what works for some doesn’t work for others.”
Companies should be open to personalisation by “letting people choose their own adventure” and clearly communicating what ‘compressed’ would look like at an organisational, team and individual level, says McGeorge.
3. Train employees to work smarter
McGeorge posed the following question: “How do we help people see that it’s possible to get their job done in a shorter time frame?”
The answer: teaching people how to work smarter.
HR can play a valuable role in educating managers and employees about how they can get the most out of their work days.
This could manifest in a number of ways. Making meetings shorter and more efficient; blocking out periods of time for deep work or brainstorming sessions; or developing out-of-the-box policies, such as the 15 per cent rule where you carve out space for employees to think creatively and innovatively. (Side note: it’s thought this is how Gmail was created).
Other ways to work smarter could include:
- Educating employees about the impacts of attention residue and giving them tools to focus on the task at hand.
- Encouraging employees to try task batching, as a way to align their tasks with various brain states.
- Introduce automation for low-value tasks that free up your people’s time (i.e. via onboarding, recruitment or performance management software).
A key pillar of the compressed work week is commitment to consistency, says McGeorge.
“This is one of the challenging [aspects]. We’re going to give our people a day off a week, but we’ll still schedule meetings and send them emails, expect them to take phone calls. I’d say ‘Treat it like a weekend’, but I know there are some workplaces that expect their people to send and reply to emails on weekends.
“So it’s really important that you think about, ‘What’s the level of commitment we’re going to give to this?’” says McGeorge.
To help employees feel supported in taking their allocated time off, managers and HR could set boundaries around out-of-hours communication to make sure everyone is on the same page and that their wellbeing is front of mind.
4. How can you measure success?
Before trying a new way of working, McGeorge recommends considering what your organisation’s metrics for success are.
Perpetual’s key metrics included work-life balance, engagement, organisational commitment and work stimulation. It decided to bring in external researchers to measure employee satisfaction with the changes, to keep the results objective.
“People love [compressed work weeks]. They want to come work for organisations that do this – and people will stay because of this.” – Donna McGeorge
Success might also look like increased satisfaction with one’s manager, or higher rates of retention and attraction, making your company stand out from those that only offer traditional flexible work options (i.e. the option to work remotely every now and then).
“People love [compressed work weeks],” says McGeorge. “They want to come work for organisations that do this – and people will stay because of this.”
5. Consider how to make it sustainable
Common pushback surrounding the compressed work week is that while it might have worked for X company, that doesn’t mean it will work for everyone.
There is some truth to this – four-day work weeks and shorter work days will likely only work in cultures that are primed for its success and in industries that allow for it. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t offer other flexibilities to your people, such as parental accommodations, choosing your own hours, and working from anywhere.
For those organisations looking to give it a try, there are a few things you can do to ensure its longevity.
McGeorge recommends piloting a compressed work week to see what works, and what doesn’t.
“I’m a huge fan of the pilot. It’s the easiest way to get change, or get some traction for change in an organisation,” she says.
“I would also recommend that teams come together and openly discuss the type of work that can be done remotely, and what has to be done as a group, which will also determine what days people can choose to work, or not.”
If the new style of work suits one person, but not their colleague, it’s important for HR to be aware of this before it becomes a bigger issue.
This can be addressed by regular check-ins or employee pulse checks during the pilot, but it should also be a consideration before you kick off a new style of working.
“My main advice would be to ask your people what they want,” says McGeorge. “Given that 2020 and 2021 have proven it’s possible to have people work remotely, let people work together to make the right choices.”
Want to discuss fresh approaches to working arrangements with your HR peers? AHRI members can join the AHRI LinkedIn Lounge for exclusive conversations, advice, research and more! Join today!