Has the pandemic opened the floodgates to a four-day working week?

29th November 2021

Challenger bank Atom hit the headlines last week when it became the latest major UK employer to announce it was introducing a four-day week without reducing pay. But could this signal a wider move to a new model of more flexible working in a post-pandemic world?

The Durham-based fintech, which launched in 2014 and had £2.7bn of lending assets under management last year, said the majority of its 430 employees have agreed to the optional change from 37.5 hours over five days to 34 hours over four.

CEO and founder Mark Mullen said the move was inspired by the pandemic and would help improve wellbeing and retain staff.

He told the BBC: “Before Covid, the conventional wisdom was you had to commute in, sit at a desk all day and repeat that process when you commuted home. Covid showed us that it wasn’t necessary…I think doing 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, is a pretty old-fashioned way of working.”

The announcement by Atom was followed last Thursday by Virgin Money’s launch of a new “values-led approach to flexible working” in response to a future of work survey of all staff and more than 3,000 members of the public.

The bank, which has offices in Newcastle, Leeds and Glasgow, has published report ‘A Life More Virgin’ which announced widescale changes to working practices.

It said: “A large proportion of our workforce (will) shift away from full-time 9–5 office-based roles. Instead, colleagues will have the freedom to work remotely using our offices or stores as hubs for collaboration and innovation when needed. We won’t be enforcing a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Every team and colleague will be consulted on the working pattern and team rhythm that best serves their personal needs and those of our customers too.”

Smaller financial services employers are also making changes. Last week financial planning firm UNIQ Family Wealth confirmed its offices in Cardiff, Abergavenny, London and Bristol will now close on a Friday in addition to the weekend and Beaufort Financial Planning said it was trialling a four-day week for staff in its offices in North Wales and Chester in December and January.

UNIQ Family Wealth Founder and MD Marlene Outrim said: “I believe that even working a shorter week the team will be just as productive and effective. All of these benefits help us attract, and more importantly, retain, the most talented people from across the financial services community.”

As well as financial services, a move to a four-day week has also been adopted by a trailblazer in the grocery sector. One of the UK’s ‘big four’ supermarkets Morrisons announced in July 2020 that the weekly working hours for 1,500 staff at its Bradford head office were to drop from 40 to 37.5.

Instead of working the traditional eight hours a day, five days a week, they would work nine hours for four days and a six-hour Saturday shift 13 times per year. Morrisons say this new way of working will boost both recruitment and retention.

Trials of four-day working supported by both industry and government have also been taking place elsewhere in Iceland, Japan and New Zealand, and are about to start in Ireland, Scotland and Spain.

But can a move to a four-day week really benefit both employers and their workforces?

Atom says it will improve its employees’ work-life balance, health and wellbeing while reducing the company’s environmental impact and increasing efficiency and productivity.

Morrisons say: “We believe that flexible working can really make a difference. It can help us be more productive as a business. It can bring all kinds of health benefits. And it puts everyone’s wellbeing first. The idea is that this innovative new way of working will mean we’re much more flexible and responsive, and we think it will make Morrisons a place where more people will want to join – and stay.”

Meanwhile Virgin Money, which is going even further with its new flexible working model, said it wanted to “build a workplace and culture that truly enables colleagues to live their best lives” which it believed was “essential for fuelling productivity and enabling our workforce to best serve our customers and communities”.

John Wakeford, Founding Partner of HW Global and Head of the Interim Division, said: “There are significant business benefits for employers from the adoption of more flexible working policies, which have become much more of an expectation from candidates in the wake of the pandemic. They include the attraction of a much wider field of candidates for executive positions and improved retention rates.”

The 4-day week campaign is calling for a 32-hour working week for all which it says will increase productivity, bring better mental and physical health and generate a reduced carbon footprint, adding: “We invented the weekend a century ago and it’s time for an update.”

A Survation poll for the campaign in June found the majority of the British public want a national pilot of a four-day working week with no reduced for pay for workers. Of the 2,017 adults polled, 64 per cent supported the idea with only 13 per cent being outright against it.

But a note of caution has been sounded by the Chartered Institute of Professional Development. Head of Public Policy Ben Willmott said: “It is undoubtedly a positive move for employers to seek to reduce people’s working hours without compromising pay.

“However, I think the challenge of simply reducing people’s working hours without other changes is that you can increase exposure to stress, which is already one of the main causes of working time lost to sickness absence.”

And Prime Minister Boris Johnson, in his now infamous address to the CBI annual conference at the Port of Tyne last week “prophesised” a mass return of workers to city centres and office blocks, saying that there are “sound evolutionary reasons why mother nature does not like working from home”.

If more boards are to be persuaded to make the transformational move to a four-day week or other flexible working arrangements, they will be leaving a model which has been a way of life for almost 100 years.

Back in the 19th and early 20th centuries Sunday was the only ‘day of rest’ for most British workers, but in the 1930s Henry Ford in the US and pharmacy chain Boots in the UK popularised the two-day weekend as a way of boosting wellbeing and productivity.

Are we now witnessing another unstoppable workplace revolution?

Julia Collings, Senior Consultant in HW Global’s Financial Services practice, said: “I think the experience of the pandemic has fundamentally changed the mindset of business, fuelling a much more flexible approach to working arrangements.

“There is no doubt that this is having a hugely positive impact; clients are demanding increasingly diverse shortlists which we are now able to deliver, attracting candidates from a much wider geographical area as they know they are not expected in the office all – or even every – week.

“The latest announcements over the past few days would indicate an almost unstoppable momentum towards flexible working being the new norm.”