Edward Arnold considers whether the four-day working week could be a success in the legal industry
In February, Autonomy, an independent economic research organisation, published its report following the conclusion of what it hailed as the ‘world’s largest four-day working week trial to date.’
By all accounts it was a resounding success! Around 92 per cent of the companies that took part in the trial are continuing with the policy. The report highlights the significant positive impact on employee wellbeing and work–life balance, with no decrease, and even in some cases an increase, in revenue over the trial period.
The challenges and opportunities of a four-day working week will of course vary hugely by industry and even by role. But with such positive results coming out of the trial, it will no doubt be a point of discussion for many employers wanting to create a sustainable and attractive workplace and obtain an advantage in an increasingly competitive job market.
The legal industry
Recently there has been an increasing focus on lawyers’ wellbeing, not just as a HR issue, but as an underlying aspect of sustainable performance and growth. This conversation has of course been accelerated by the effects of the covid-19 pandemic and the shift to remote working.
The four-day working week may be the logical next step. However, there are fundamental aspects of the way law firms currently work that would make this a bigger cultural shift than anything we have seen in the way of advances in flexible working to date.
The four-day working week trial involved employees being paid 100 per cent of their salary for 80 per cent of their normal working hours. Law firms still largely measure productivity by hours recorded, and hourly rates are still the primary basis for the fees charged to clients, which presents an immediate and negative impact on revenue potential. The feasibility of a four-day week may therefore have to reconsider how productivity is measured and how legal services are valued.
Indeed, firms and clients alike have explored potential benefits of alternative fee arrangements in rewarding the output, as opposed to effort. Effective deployment of emerging artificial intelligence technology will also challenge the way firms value and price their services, and allow them to weaken the link between time and money that underpins current notions of productivity.
Yet if we can work less and produce the same level of service, why not maintain existing levels of work and make even more money and increase salaries? Any move towards a four-day week in the legal industry will therefore, require a rebalancing of priorities for employers and employees alike.
If firms take the leap and look to offer a four-day week, the employment law implications may be limited. There will be considerations, such as how to address existing arrangements with part-time employees to ensure they are not treated less favourably, whether through a pay rise or a proportionate reduction in working hours.
More complex questions arise however, as to exactly how you frame the right to the extra day off. During the trial, some companies adopted a ‘conditional’ approach, linked to achieving minimum levels of performance. Companies also adopted different levels of ‘protection’ for the extra day off, with some retaining a level of discretion as to whether employees could be required to work the extra day as the needs of the business dictated. These steps allowed employers to trial the arrangements and avoid negative impacts. However, any dilution of the right to the extra day off inevitably changes its quality and potentially undermines the benefit. Employees won’t be able to plan regular activities outside of work and won’t necessarily get the same increase in wellbeing if they are uncertain of if and when they will be working. Such caveats also risk unintended consequences for employee relations.
The campaign for a four-day working week is not a new phenomenon; it was less than a hundred years ago that the six-day working week became the five-day week. Around the same time, John Maynard Keynes was predicting a gradual move towards a 15-hour working week, as people benefited from the underlying increase in living standards arising from new technologies, and valued leisure time over further material needs.
While the future may not yet have panned out quite as Keynes envisaged, in a society where working lives are rapidly extending, and where the impact of technology continues to fundamentally change the way we work, the possibility of a four-day working week will no doubt remain part of the discussion.
Edward Arnold is a senior associate in the employment team at CMS
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