A four-day working week: myth or reality?
Marcin Durlak reflects on whether flexible working hours can work for all...
Nothing sounds better than clocking off for the weekend at 5pm on a Thursday – except, perhaps, the realisation as you set your alarm that you won’t actually need to go to work the next day.
Companies are starting to take the idea of a four-day week seriously – and a pilot scheme is underway in the UK as we speak. Run by researchers from Oxbridge and Boston college, the 4-Day Week Campaign, and think tank Autonomy. Equivalent trials to the scheme – which is assessing the possibility of employee productivity functioning at 100 per cent for 80 per cent of the time - have already occurred in a number of countries across the globe, and the results point to various benefits, including improvements in productivity and satisfaction.
Sceptics, however, might argue if your employees are being paid and accomplishing the same amount for a day less each week, it’s likely they were very inefficient beforehand. This may seem overly cynical, but really, we must acknowledge that each sector will be impacted by the four-day week differently. For lawyers, the deadlines, the caseloads and the responsibility all culminate to make our jobs pretty stressful at times. It is likely that cramming all of this into fewer days could elevate our stress rather than quash it. So, what do lawyers need to consider?
Your clients might not be on board
A key factor in whether a four-day working week could be successful is the nature of client relationships. Take, for instance, those working customer-facing roles in retail or hospitality: their client’s experience is expected to be of the highest level, but it is short-lived, and the relationship itself is transient and temporary – meaning it wouldn’t be adversely impacted by a four-day week. For lawyers, however, client relationships are expected to last for a long time, during which it’s fundamental the client remains satisfied that the service they’re being provided goes above and beyond – and, most importantly, is available five days a week. Lawyers may find their relationships with clients are impacted if their working days don’t line up, and it would be particularly tricky to explain to an existing client that their main point of contact will no longer be available on a Friday, for example.
Many lawyers already find themselves working weekends to keep up with client demands. If their weeks are made shorter this could increase the likelihood of them working a fifth day (their weekend) and make them unhappy at work.
Arranging cover becomes constant
We must also consider what extra resource is required for a firm to continue operating for the full five days - as will be expected by the courts and most of your clients - if the lawyers themselves are only working for four. Practice managers may find that the task of arranging absence cover becomes constant, and diary management could develop into even more of a pain than it is at present. We’re all strapped for time, and it’s likely that extra budget will need to be set aside to hire extra support staff to assist with this.
Covering for other team members would be a daily expectation, as there will always be a day where someone is off – handovers would constantly be flying around and need divvying up between the remaining staff. Circling back to the point on employee satisfaction, lawyers won’t be best pleased to find that they’re having to cram not only their own work into four days but that of their team members too.
Also, team working could become a problem if people are working on different days – it’s much harder to collaborate if the team is never fully complete. Talking things through with a colleague and using a ‘hive mind’ can sometimes be the best way to overcome a mental block when dealing with a tricky project or caseload, but your lawyers might find there are fewer people to put their heads together with.
Enforcing it – but how?
Also, those adopting a four-day working week will need to think about how to enforce it. Are you going to say employees must work the same four days each week, or will you allow them to pick their days on an ad hoc basis and as they see fit? If the latter, it’s important to think about the impact this will have – it can be problematic if you don’t know who is working when. It’s also likely most people will want to take either a Monday or Friday off (who doesn’t love the sound of a three-day weekend?), but we know this couldn’t work in practice. Employers will need to figure out how to balance the individual requests of their staff and allocate their days off fairly – this is easier said than done!
All in all, a four-day working week in the legal profession could – even with the best of intentions – likely cause extra stress and potentially scupper what we should really be striving for, which is flexibility. By providing flexible working, employees will still have the time to do all their work on a busy week without rushing through it and potentially making errors as a result. Meanwhile, it gives them the option to take a four-day week when it’s quieter – but on their own terms, which alleviates the pressure not only on them but also their employer.
Marcin Durlak is managing partner at IMD Solicitors: imd.co.uk