A simple work from home desk setup

In Insight by Forward Space

Burnout Britain - The Rise of Flexible Working

by Forward founder & CEO, Gavin Eddy

We work some of the longest hours in Europe and yet have one of the least productive economies (a topic for another time). In a world where we are constantly connected, a large proportion of our lives is now defined by work. So it’s perhaps not surprising then that increasing numbers of employees are reporting feeling burnt out.

The answer we are told is flexible working. Companies that don’t adopt it will struggle to hire in the next five years. So say the 4 Day Week Campaign and an increasing number of think-tanks who are calling in advance of the election for parties to back policies that help deliver flexible working options.

In September 2021, we became a 4 day week employer and, quite honestly, it has been a struggle. Under a 4 day working week, employees have their working hours cut by 20%, but with no reduction in pay. As a customer-facing business open 5 days a week, we obviously had to hire more people to cover those hours. That immediately gave us a significant increase in costs with ostensibly the same output. So, on the face of it not a great decision. On top of that, issues of accountability, inconsistency of approach and breakdowns in communication have all posed challenges. But I wouldn’t go back.

We’ve learnt a lot of lessons along the way, like having an anchor day, when everyone is in (Tuesdays in case you’re wondering) and group email addresses to ensure clients are talking seamlessly to a team rather than one individual. We’ve minimised internal email in favour of chat channels and use task management tools better. It’s not perfect but it’s definitely better.

In our employee survey the 4-day week consistently ranks as the top ‘benefit’, ahead even of salary level. I have no doubt that it has helped in our recruitment and retention of good people. Hiring and training new employees takes time, management resources and money. And in a tight labour market your new employee is likely to be more expensive than your last one. So staff churn is costly. Productivity also has to be measured over time – no employee reaches peak productivity on day one. It takes weeks, months, years for them to hone their skills. So, once you’ve got them and trained them, you need to keep them.

Arguably the 5 day week was designed for a very different time. 19th century Industrial Revolution style ways of working are no longer fit for purpose for many of the vast breadth of jobs that exist today. Certainly, time spent at a desk or staring at a screen is not a good measure of productivity in the knowledge economy. It certainly isn’t right for us.

As a company we’ve always supported remote working and part-time roles. Our HQ team is spread out across the SW and they can choose to work partially from home.  So, in some ways the 4-day week was just another step towards more innovative and flexible ways of working. Ultimately, as a boss surely what you want is a happy, engaged team of the best people who hang around as long as possible? Because that is what makes them most productive in the long term.