Come Monday, thousands of workers in the U.K. will begin a four-day workweek trial with 100 percent pay. But the dreamy idea comes with a major caveat: To receive full pay while working 80 percent of their usual schedule, workers must promise to maintain 100 percent productivity. And it comes at the expense of the one thing employees really want that actually improves their well-being and moves the dial toward a better work-life balance: freedom to work when they want.
Following what will yield an initial gain, post-pilot the program will likely see productivity plummet as staff become overworked from working in overdrive. Because the way to reduce burnout and increase productivity isn't to reduce the number of days we work, as the strangest (yet most effective) Great Resignation strategy proves. Instead, it's to reduce the number of hours we work per day.
In other words, people ultimately want the freedom and flexibility to work when it works for them. And though the sound of a four-day workweek is alluring, the appeal is rooted in working less--not working harder. What's lower-stress, more effective, and easier for employers to deploy instead is the flexible work arrangement.
The Human Brain Works Best in Blocks of Time
The human mind is great at short bursts of focus and attention, but it's not naturally capable of prolonged periods of concentration. According to a piece published by Harvard Medical School, what's best for our brains is to work in blocks of time--which the flexible work schedule allows.
So rather than trying to shoehorn five days into four and maintaining an inhuman level of focus to do so, the flexible work schedule gives employees the space to work in sync with their focus (and lack of). It's not only healthier for the brain, contributing to employee well-being, but it also better enables your employees to properly recharge and return to their work with a heightened focus.
Long Hours Are the Problem, Not the Solution
Since our brains are not wired for long bouts of focus, it's largely unrealistic that everyone will be able to get all of their work done in less time. Those who can't manage will simply end up working longer days. Not surprisingly, research shows that long hours backfire for people and companies.
The solution, then, is not to have fewer, longer days. The solution is to have fewer hours per day, and perhaps more days. As terrible as that might initially sound, the reality is that it can be strangely ideal. For the record, I say that as someone who has done this in the past, sometimes working seven days a week, happily on my own accord.
Being an early riser I would often work a weekend morning or two when most of the world was still asleep. It was a time when nothing else was going on and the peace of the quiet morning meant I could work without distractions, and get a lot done. By working a few hours over the weekend, I could then leave work midafternoon guilt-free to take advantage of a beautiful day, when there was something else going on, or when I simply didn't feel like working.
Give Employees Autonomy, Get Results
While I had the flexibility to condense my 40-hour workweek into just four days, I rarely did, because I had less stress and a higher quality of life by chipping away at work as it suited me throughout the week. But the beauty of the flexible schedule is that if one of your employees has the capacity to maintain focus and get all of their work done in fewer days, they can. Ultimately, flexible work allows employees to get their work done without the confines of set days or hours.
Of course, this doesn't work within all organizations or positions--just as the four-day workweek doesn't either. But, giving employees with quantifiable targets and productivity-based positions the freedom to work on their schedule does provide a better work-life balance. It allows them to work around their life, instead of living around their work.