by Dave Shea, Senior National Development Officer
We’re halfway through our 6 month experiment, trialling 4-day working at the SCSN.
In this second post (you can read the first here), I share the experience so far, organisationally and personally, and try to predict where this all might lead us. It isn’t an evidence-led piece, it’s more of a barometer for how things are going.
Reactions to Change
In the beginning – before our pilot started – we were careful to reflect and consider the practical implications of 4-day working. We spoke to others and took time to design and plan its application. We were methodical and prepared. And we understood the importance of explaining our thinking, for our partners and the public. What we didn’t appreciate – I certainly didn’t – was the spectrum of personal feeling it would stimulate in friends, colleagues and collaborators. As I enthusiastically – and sensitively, I hope – shared the news with partners in meetings, with friends by a rare Scottish barbecue, and family across dinner tables, most folk appeared positive and supportive. Some were indifferent or unmoved, though it’s debatable whether this demonstrates indifference to the issue or just me, I’ll let you decide. And a few seemed sceptical, even suspicious, and a little grudging or envious too which is understandable. What this sample told me early on was, a majority see 4-day working as a good thing and some, without opportunity to scrutinise or time to objectively weigh the merits, remain doubtful. The 4-day week is still relatively rare in Scotland and the UK. It’s counter-intuitive to believe working a day less can deliver the same output and increase staff welfare. It breaks with generations of ritual behaviour and entrenched notions of work and life and success. And not everyone does or will agree with 4-day working in principle, no matter the passion or the data or the stories it offers. But I believe the more exposure the idea gets, and the more it can be tested in the real world, the more likely it is to succeed. I’m confident, if enough board members and directors, presidents and chief executives, managers and human resources teams see, hear and read about the benefits, the more likely it is that 4-day working will be adopted widely, and we’ll see nationwide system change.
Is it for everyone?
Early on, I attended a roundtable discussion hosted by colleagues at Flexibility Works. It was for organisations undertaking or interested in 4-day working. I mostly listened, and talked occasionally to SCSN’s early experiences. As others spoke, all the benefits – outlined in my previous blog – were repeated. It felt reassuring but a bit self-reinforcing and unchallenging. However, later what really stood out were the occasional dissenting voices, pointing to the risks and unintended consequences, and the inequity of 4-day working. Namely, that it’s a bit of a middle-class idea, that its preference is to regular office jobs and workers, and it doesn’t easily translate to the gig economy, or factory workers or carers, or families that depend on overtime, or shift workers and the emergency services. These points were substantive, well made and gave me pause. I don’t know what the answers are for every workplace but I’m sure there is one. Ultimately, I think these issues speak to wider themes, about how unequal our economy has become, and the systemic change needed for all workers to enjoy a better quality of life; pay, conditions, absence, rest periods, annual leave etc. I believe 4-day working can be for everyone, if our idea of work – and employer expectations of employees – is improved and made fairer.
Working a day less
I was on leave when SCSN transitioned from 5 to 4-day working. My colleagues had a two-week march on me by the time I started. My introduction felt quite intense; returning to meetings and tasks and deadlines, and having a day less to do it all. The overriding thought was to remind myself – again and again – that I had 20% less time every week. Thursdays are Fridays. Thursdays are Fridays. Thursdays are Fridays. I got caught a couple of times, thinking I had more time than I did which added some anxiety. Decades of being conditioned to typical full-time work is difficult to undo. The early weeks of the pilot, the first 6 or so were difficult and stressful. I confess, I worked a few nights and a weekend or two, despite promising I wouldn’t. At the outset, we agreed as a team that we’d only do what we can do, in the time we have. No cheating! I cheated. But deadlines loomed then, during a particularly busy time so I justified it to myself as being conscientious and reliable, important qualities when you’re a relatively new employee trying to prove yourself. My wife didn’t see it that way. I cheated. And I suspect that’s the problem most folk will experience, early on when adjusting to this way of working. It’s the feeling that you’re getting something for free; reward without work; a day extra at no cost, you feel like you need to give a little more in your own time. Now though, I’m a fully-fledged disciple to the 4-day working week, harmonised and happy, and – with the exception of emergency deadlines or crisis – I’m committing to keeping my days off work free. But I’ve learned, it takes discipline to make the change and keep it working.
Having a day more
The extra day has given me more time with my children and my wife which is invaluable, particularly when the 8-month old isn’t sleeping. At all! I intended to create a new Friday routine of some kind, like go swimming, go running, or start a regimented do this or do that. Instead, I’ve used the days more organically – and probably more usefully – to schedule occasional appointments (dentist, doctor, nursery etc.) so they don’t impinge on 4-day working. I see friends and family, do adventures with the kids or go on daytime dates with my wife. It’s all random, a bit like a weekend – which is sort of the point – giving us a little more time to live. The benefits didn’t feel immediate but they’re happening. I feel more at ease and happier, at work and at home. And because I’m more focussed in the 4 days I am working, the separation between work-life and personal-life feels more pronounced. It’s easier to shut-down when I’m done. Working from home, that’s another welcome boundary and benefit.
So far, so good.
At work, our partners have accepted the change without hesitation or complaint. Collaborations and co-production continues without disruption. Our productivity hasn’t dipped, it may even have increased. Our latest quarterly report – submitted to the SCSN board and Scottish Government in December – was chock-full, documenting the first three months of our 4-day working. The staff team check-in with each other regularly in-person, and we continue to complete staff surveys, to record individual experiences and document evidence.
Personally, I feel more committed to work when I am working, and more focussed on myself and my family when I’m not working. I feel healthier and happier. It’s a privilege, and a responsibility, to be among the first to undertake 4-day working, to advocate for what works so others might get the same opportunity.