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Finding the right flexibility for your company

By Elizabeth Akass, Editor, Engage Business Media

Wellcome explains why it initially wanted to pursue a four-day week for its employees’ productivity, diversity, and wellbeing, before deciding that other forms of flexible working were more appropriate for suiting its employees’ needs across the board.

Wellcome, a London-based charitable foundation with a global remit, exists to improve health by helping great ideas to thrive. About £1 billion is spent per year supporting researchers, taking on health challenges, campaigning for better science, and generally helping the public get involved with science and health research.

Chris Newstead, Head of Internal Communications at Wellcome, describes why he initially wanted to explore the possibility of a four-day week. “We need to disrupt the notion that our working time is an infinite resource. I think we all know that when we step back time is ticking, yet when we’re at work we treat our time in a very haphazard manner. We need to be far more selective on the time that we do present as available to work, and to use that time as wisely as possible.”

He explains that the main driver at Wellcome for the four-day week being implemented was the prospect of improved productivity, diversity, and wellbeing.

“It would help productivity based on the maxim that restricted time increases productivity, and at some stage there’s a tipping point where the more you work the less you achieve. This can be due to sloppiness because you’re tired; you could be less focused because you have less energy, or you’re less able to prioritise.”

“For diversity, it would help to create a workforce that has different needs, certainly with flexibility around when they can work and what works for them. Further to this, the type of people that you might attract with the proposition of a four-day week might be different to the people you would traditionally get with the proposition of a standard five-day working environment.”

Newstead says it could also be beneficial to employee’s mental, physical, and even spiritual wellbeing. In regards to mental wellbeing, “giving less time to your employer allows more time to be given to other areas of your life. Hopefully that would lessen stress, lessen worry, and lessen concern.” For physical wellbeing, “there would be more time to devote to physical activity in your life given the fact that you’d have three days not working each week. This can give people the option of using that time for going to the gym, exercising outside, or spending active time with their family.” Finally, he says spiritual wellbeing could be benefitted “because you would be working less you could look at your life in a broader context and use your time differently.”

“Putting some boundaries around work helps you really focus on what’s important and what you need to do with your life. Having less time in the office can make you much more focused on the time you do have; it helps you use your time in a much more considered fashion, and helps you value the time away from work more.”

Newstead states that if reducing working days were to be put in place at any company, legislating it would be essential to create healthy boundaries for people to navigate. He says this is similar to the situation several companies found when removing limits on the number of days of annual leave employees could take, which resulted in staff taking fewer holiday days than when they were limited to a contracted amount.

“The reality of removing established legislation around annual leave is that people feel an emotional responsibility to their company, and they end up taking far less holiday than they otherwise might be entitled to were it legislated. If you don’t place boundaries, people end up giving too much of themselves and unwittingly are abused by the system which was trying to allow them the maximum freedom.” He notes that this is why Wellcome focused on all employees taking the same day off each week to ensure that everyone did take the allocated time off that they were allowed.

Newstead describes the process of the idea of a four-day week being discussed with employees, and how although the notion was initially received well, concerns quickly began to be raised. “It was decided that if it was an idea that would be right for Wellcome it had to be right for everyone. The best way to test that is to run a trial. Many discussions took place with the senior leaders across the organisation to hear their worries and their hopes based on their strategic goals and what they needed to deliver.”

“We involved staff in discussions wherever possible, supported by an ongoing working group with representatives from HR, legal, finance, and communication departments – people that really understood what was happening across the business.” He continues: “Wellcome also has a highly engaged workforce on our intranet, so staff can discuss and share ideas on that digital platform which really helped with collecting feedback.”

Newstead explains the main concerns that were raised, which ultimately resulted in the four-day week trial not going ahead in Wellcome, and it being decided that now was not an appropriate time to pursue this specific form of flexible working further.

The first was the challenge of wages. “One area of Wellcome is a museum that is open to the public, where staff work a seven-day rota, and trying to drop a day from that rota for each member of staff would have meant an increase in staff hire and an increase in costs.”

The second was uneven workloads. “We all have peaks and lows with deadlines. Sometimes you just need to work five days, or even more, so shutting the office for one day a week would actually be very unhelpful to different teams at different times trying to meet their deadlines.”

The third was the concern that less work would be achieved. “A lot of people don’t want to condense their work into four days for worries of not getting it done, and some simply said that they enjoy their jobs and coming into work for the full five days per week suited their lifestyle.”

The fourth was domestic conflict. “Wellcome already has lots of staff working part-time, or flexibly to work around other commitments, so shifting their flexible day off to one specific day that might be one of their scheduled working days might be difficult for them. This could add more stress to their lives, which goes against the initial intention of bringing in a four-day working week in the first place.”

He finishes by saying that whilst a four-day week might work well for some companies, for Wellcome at this time there needs to be a focus on other forms of flexible working. “You really have to pursue fairness and what’s appropriate for the company as a whole. The four-day week is one part of flexible working, but I think it’s really important to consider individual needs, and I think there’ll be many other things that can be explored and tapped into instead.”