Working smarter, not harder, to maximise a four-day working week

By Frank Weishaupt, below, CEO, Owl Labs

Following the success of the four-day work trial in the UK, a hundred businesses from start-up through to enterprise level, have pledged to make the shorter work week permanent. The trial’s success, in which 95% of employers said productivity had stayed the same or improved, is proof that the traditional nine-to-five working day is dead. Workers have had a taste of flexibility since the pandemic, and they know which flavour works for them and their needs.

According to Owl Labs’ own annual State of Hybrid Work Report, 69% of British SMB employees would take a pay cut for a four-day work week, while nearly a third (32%) would decline a job offer if flexible hours were not offered. Yet, an increasing number of businesses including the likes of Twitter and Snap are demanding employees return to the office, citing productivity concerns. However, 56% of SMB workers say they are the same, if not more productive when working remotely. Managers must overcome their own ‘productivity paranoia’ and give workers agency in choosing their own work schedules to facilitate a more productive and collaborative work environment.

To prevent employees working longer hours in a shorter period of time, known as condensed hours, managers need to ensure that their teams are working smarter, not harder. Only then, will SMEs reap the benefits of a more flexible working schedule.

The nine-to-five work week is dead

While Dolly Parton may have cemented the nine-to-five workday into our psyche, since the pandemic, hybrid work patterns have reshaped how people approach work. Most significantly, people want a better work life balance that enables them to better fit their work life around their interests and family commitments outside of the office. That in turn creates more engaged and fulfilled teams who bring their best selves to work.

While workers have come to expect flexibility over where they work, they’re also looking for greater control over when they work. Small businesses can lead the charge in transitioning away from the nine-to-five workday by tapping into their agility. Offering more opportunities for job sharing, or considering setting core hours for meetings and teamwork where individuals can then work to their own schedules outside of those hours, will boost productivity while giving workers more autonomy over their schedules.

Leaning more into asynchronous forms of communication – where one person provides information that doesn’t demand an immediate response i.e. an email – where feasible will ensure that teams still feel connected. For example, SMBs can host asynchronous standups over Slack which allow team members to receive a series of questions beforehand and answer them at a comfortable pace without the pressure of an immediate response.

Working smarter, not harder

One common misconception about the four-day work week is that employees work the same number of hours in fewer days to get everything done. While mismanagement can lead to spiralling workloads, rethinking how SME workers approach their workday can ensure they work smarter to get through their task list.

Batching similar tasks together such as completing more straightforward admin tasks in one go, rather than dealing with them on an ad hoc basis can set a better work rhythm and boost efficiency across smaller tasks. Working in stints of 90 minutes can also help individuals group tasks together more efficiently.

Deadlines can also be set based on your teams’ individual internal rhythms or energy levels. Personal circadian rhythms or body clocks play an important role in determining how well employees perform at work. For some, tackling more challenging tasks in the morning leads to better results, while others feel more energised in the evening. Setting deadlines which take these individual cycles into consideration will be more conducive to better quality work.

Tackling productivity paranoia

60% of SME employees believe managers tend to trust full-time office workers more than hybrid or fully remote workers. As a result, some managers have the unfair assumption that those working remotely aren’t working as hard as their in person peers. Clear communication and a robust tech stack are essential to alleviating any biases.

As it stands, 42% of SME workers find it difficult to be part of, or contribute to, conversations during online meetings, while one in three (29%) of SME employees believe that their business requires improved video-conferencing technologies. A modernised tech stack is key to maintaining an immersive work culture among hybrid teams, no matter where they are based.

Similarly, simply being present in the office doesn’t guarantee high productivity levels. SMEs need to create conscious office environments that provide a variety of workspaces. Offices that consider focus, collaboration, learning, socialisation as well as rest will foster a productive work culture that caters to a teams’ different working styles.

Small businesses need to rethink the traditional working week to ensure that their teams remain engaged and get the level of flexibility that will enable them to perform at their best. Implementing a four-day work week requires sufficient planning and immersive technology to ensure that employees work smarter not harder.