Photo by Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash

Author:@aestranger

Reading time: 11 minutes

Why a shorter work week needs an engagement reframing

This topic of a shorter work week has been around since before the pandemic and it’s been a hot topic during and after. For one thing, the pandemic gave everyone an insight into what it’s like if your day consisted purely of working, or if it consisted of no work at all.

Both sides of the coin gave us a look at how we would want our lives to be, working and private. And recently a friend of mine sent me an article from the Guardian that brought up this discussion about why it’s a good (or bad) idea to move more towards a 4-day working week.

Now full disclosure, I’m a freelancer and a consultant, so depending on your point of view and my schedule, I either work 7-days a week, or I don’t ‘work’ at all (as I don’t have an employer as such). So my perspective is somewhat ‘unique’ on the traditional 9-5, 5-day work week.

And bearing in my mind that the 5-day work week has also only really been around since the Industrial Revolution and only since the 20th Century, depending on the nation you live in.

Reading the article, and remembering the continuing discussion on whether or not to shorten the working week, I felt that the entire concept is flawed to start with. And I know, that is very controversial.

The reason that there is a desire to shorten a work week is that people are getting stressed out and they are either burnout or bored out. And that this leads to a general lack of efficiency or productivity. And much of this has come to the surface during the pandemic. And the solution for many appears to be to shorten the work week. I don’t think shortening the week to 4-days will solve any of that. Because fundamentally that solution doesn’t solve the one I just stated.

Since the problem is burnout, bore out, efficiency and productivity, the solution has to do with the engagement or the lack of engagement of the individual. Therefore, what is required is an entire reframing of what work is, why people wish to work, what a “work-week” is, and for the reframing to be done through the lens of engagement design.

Why a reframe is needed

To even begin to discuss changing the way we invest time into our working lives, we need to reframe and rethink what we know and understand about the 7-day week construct.

For many in business, there is a construct that we have 7 days in a week, and 5 of those days are work days and 2 of those days are non-work days. Maybe even leisure days. And the pattern is always that the 2 non-workdays are at the end of the week.

Now if we move to the 4-day work week, we’re still in keeping with this pattern, but now we have 3 non-work days at the end of the week. In other words, we’ve gone from a Monday to Friday concept to a Monday to Thursday concept. In essence, we haven’t changed anything, we’ve just shifted the goal posts.

All other things in the discussion appear to remain the same. Hours are not different, workload hasn’t changed. And for some bizarre reason, the discussion only ever centres around white-collar corporate office jobs. Individuals in the service industry (among others) will lose out because their profession doesn’t allow for this.

If you have a profession that already can have the benefit of flexible working time then you get to benefit more from the 4-day work week. If your profession doesn’t have that, then that’s too bad and you’re screwed I guess.

Therefore, the reason a reframe is needed for the construct of the working week is so that everyone, regardless of profession, can have the flexibility, aid and support they need and want. To be inclusive of those that have unconventional working hours or habits due to their lifestyle, personal obligations, disabilities or other considerations (i.e. autism, ADHD, neurodivergence, etc.). Naturally, such statements and argument points are controversial and unpopular for some.

How a reframe will be unpopular

With any discussion that centres around changing a way of working, there will always be pushback. With any discussion about change, there will always be pushback. People essentially do not like change. And that’s mostly due to a fear of the unknown. What we know now is safer than what we are yet to find out later.

There are three points of pushback that I’ve come across when reading about changing a working week from 5 days to 4 days.

The three points are: economics, profession type and logistics

Economics

The pushback argument is: When the economy is doing well then we can afford fewer working days, and when it is in decline then people will want and need to work more days.

It is a solid argument, and it works with the current working construct. Unfortunately, if an economy is in decline and there is negative growth then there are other factors that come into play. And the result may very well be that despite working more, you’re not getting much more money, or the buying power remains the same despite the increased income. The counter-argument is of course that if you allow for more free time, then the individual may spend more which means more money being injected into the economy and growth eventually (re-)starts.

Professions

This we’ve covered a bit already, with the differences that occur between the blue-collar and white-collar professions. The statement alone of saying that a profession wouldn’t allow for a reduction in working time, regardless of whether it’s the 4-day workweek argument or a flexible working arrangement, is essentially shortsighted and archaic. What that statement says to me is that those in power and control are unwilling to change or innovate and that the profession as it is, is fundamentally unattractive. For example, a supermarket clerk might work 6-7 days a week for minimum wage (nation dependent), and their employer needs them to do those hours. A discussion of reducing the workweek is unattractive to that employer because that means they need to find more people to do the unattractive job, to cover all the weekdays. If they keep the status quo, then they don’t need to worry about spending more to find more people for what is viewed as an unattractive job.

Logistics

This is the fundamental issue of the workload not magically reducing despite fewer days being worked. There are enough discussion points about a 4-day workweek but many seem to keep a 40-hour workweek. Or whatever amount of hours per week the organisation deems need to be put in, be that 40, 50 or 60.

What this means is that if we keep to the current construct, we for example go from working 8 hours a day to 10 hours a day. On top of that, the discussion continues with what happens with holidays and paid time off? Will HR need to work more to sort all of this out? Does it increase the running costs of companies? And if people work fewer days, shouldn’t they be earning less?

And if the company has only 4-days of a working week and the competitor works a different 4 days, or what if they cheat and do 5 days anyway? Well, then they will have the advantage. Such doom & gloom statements do beg the question of what these companies do now when they deal with international businesses in the Middle East and Asia, who sometimes work Sunday to Thursday or only have Sundays off?

All of these points simply stem from remaining in that 9-5, 5-day work week construct that a fair amount of the world has adopted. And yet it doesn’t solve the underlying issue, which is engagement, efficiency and productivity. It simply deflects.

What to reframe towards

So, what do we do then? After that somewhat lengthy rant-like diatribe, how do we reframe and towards what?

Well, the issue is engagement, efficiency and productivity. Efficiency and productivity can be increased by having the individual and audience be more engaged in what they are doing. People love working towards a clear goal, objective, or target. It gives clarity of vision and comprehension. So the answer is simple right? Move to a more results-oriented way of working, that promotes collaboration, people investment and mutual support across all levels of the business and organisation.

Easy, solved.

Unfortunately, this utopian concept of a collaborative, supportive environment where everyone cares for each other, trusts and respects each other and is honest and transparent, just doesn’t exist.

At least not straight away. But what we can do is slowly but surely move to a way of working that allows for a flexible working time where the individual in collaboration with the organisation can discuss and determine their best working method and time.

One approach is using the TMR methodology, Targets-Milestones-Rewards, from AEX design. This is an expanded version of John Doerr’s OKR system, which includes the added Rewards aspect as part of engagement theory from AEX design practices.

What the TMR system offers:

That there are clear targets to be met, with distinct milestones along the way and a positive reward that is of correct value and meaning for the work done to achieve that target. Jobs, and professions then, would no longer suffer from a lack of engagement, efficiency and productivity. And the question of how many hours or days you worked that week would not even be discussed.

This isn’t a new, groundbreaking concept. It also doesn’t remove the 5-day workweek or the 7-day week. But it does reframe and remove the construct of thinking that way.

There isn’t a single job that doesn’t have a target it needs to achieve. And for those that have a target but it is so mundane it could be automated, automate it. Just rip off the band-aid and be done with it.

For such a target and results-oriented (utopian) work environment, it would need clear understanding between all parties. And mutual respect for a healthy work-life balance.

Building such a change in any organisation takes time, requiring a strong strategy and solid engagement design so that everyone, across every level, is involved in reframing the way we work.

Final thoughts

The main issue with a 4-day work week is that it can never be implemented for everyone, and therefore that alone already makes it unrealistic.

The foremost statements that you always read for why a 4-day work week is better are the same as when you take an extra day off: Empty and quiet supermarkets, kids are away at school and then Saturday and Sunday were free of chores and could be enjoyed… Unfortunately in that story, supermarket staff and school staff are still working 5-day work weeks… Essentially someone is ‘paying’ for someone else to have that extra day off. And then people love to talk about what is fair and unfair.

In addition, what I also come across is that the construct always seems to revert to the model of the 7-day week. The 4-day work week is always depicted as everyone having Monday to Thursday. We can’t even move beyond that and discuss Tuesday to Friday or let’s be crazy and do Monday-Tuesday and Thursday-Friday as the working days?

And as some nations went from a 6-day work week before the world wars, to a 5-day work week after, at what point are we going to discuss 3-day work weeks? If some companies are trialling a 40+ hour work week compressed into 4-day 10-hour/day workdays, when will have the 14+ hour/day, 3-day work week discussion? At that point, we’d likely need the 4-day weekend just to recover from those intense 3-days…

What this discourse is trying to highlight is that the concept of a 4-day work week is simply a bad response, made of smoke and mirrors to solve the wrong issue around inefficiency, increased stress and being disengaged.

If you have these issues then your organisation needs to perhaps consider an engagement change strategy. One where the culture promotes conversation on determining and setting the right targets, with well-defined milestones and has rewards that are meaningful, both intrinsically and extrinsically.

Because if people want to work 5 days, 4 days, 3 days, or whatever, and can achieve their targets in the time that they have agreed with you and are rewarded for their efforts, then surely that level of engagement and productivity is of the greater value for everyone.

I hope that this piece has given you some food for thought and helped improve your own methods or at least offered a different viewpoint to consider.

Do check out the other posts on æStranger.com, and do leave a comment or contact us if you have some ideas of your own that you wish to discuss or if you would like to see other topics discussed.

Please do Share if you found it helpful and if you know of someone who would it find it helpful as well. 

LinkedIn
Twitter
Facebook
WhatsApp
Email
Reddit

And if you wish to support us in any way, then you can do so by buying us a Beer or a Coffee.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.