“I have nothing left to give,” a friend of mine said the other day. She resigned from her job for a break before finding another role. We all know people who have burned out. It’s a problem for about one in four workers according to McKinsey. So what should business leaders do when their teams are exhausted and they too may be facing struggles for energy and enthusiasm?
One thing not to do is jump on the bandwagon of a four-day work week, which some companies seem to be hoping will serve as a universal band-aid to address any concerns they have about employee engagement and morale . I love the intent and I understand the superficial appeal of this idea, but I disagree with its usefulness. The four-day week is merely a short-term solution to far more serious and complex problems. What people generally ask for is more Flexibility, support and versatility at work to address the issues that lead to burnout – not just a mandated time off that compresses work into a shorter time frame.
Before business leaders rush into a four-day workweek or a comprehensive, far-reaching approach, they should step back and think about what they’re trying to achieve holistically. Flexibility, in addition to time to pause and recharge, can foster better employee engagement with the organization, leading to growth and profits. A shorter work week only scratches the surface of the inseparable link between mental health and the impact it has on employees. What we really need are more comprehensive solutions that meet the needs of employees and the needs of a company and its customers.
Proponents of the four-day week often cite a four-year course in Iceland that found – surprise! – People were happier and more productive when they worked four to five hours less per week for the same pay. Also often quoted is a to learn out Microsoft Japan in 2019 shows revenue per employee increased nearly 40% when they worked fewer days.
But the evidence is not always positive. A study in New Zealand found that the four-day workweek led to more intense workdays and increased pressure on management to measure and monitor performance. Other experimental programs were launched Scotland, Ireland, Spainand at dozens of private companies, without much compelling evidence that shortening the workweek can solve problems like burnout, which is often caused by multiple compounding factors.
The four-day week is obsolete
The thinking behind the four-day workweek is based on an outdated notion that people are 100% on or off at work for eight hours a day. Work just doesn’t work that way anymore. The pandemic has pushed many of us from all walks of life to rethink how we create and maintain value. In this “awakening of work” We all explore new models and systems to find out where we are getting value from in our lives. Businesses need to recognize this and reflect this in their policies and practices. Leaders need to recognize that many of the best talent are already creating fluid and tailored careers. Companies are left behind in their ability to attract and retain innovative business drivers if they remain anchored in outdated structures.
The goal of Free up a Day is that people can then take care of their personal needs, but as we all know, life often doesn’t work that way. Not every doctor can see you on Fridays; not every school play is at 6pm etc. Real flexibility is to coach the little league at 3pm every Tuesday or start later every other Wednesday to teach morning choir rehearsals.
Freelancers have known this freedom for years. In our Freelance striker study, the most comprehensive survey of US independent workers, we counted 59 million Americans who were freelancers during the last 12 months. Eight out of ten stated that time flexibility was a key reason for freelancing.
Hours worked is an interchangeable concept anyway. Even if you force people to be “off,” we’re all more approachable than we used to be. Economists even have shown that some professionals yearn for this connection. And even if we give back one day a week, moving to remote work and eliminating the daily commute will put those hours back on the schedule — assuming people work during their old commute time.
I think we can do better. Whether you set the guidelines or have a voice for change in your workplace, here are some alternative solutions to the four-day workweek that we’ve implemented to motivate and trust our team members to organize their work schedule like and flexibly can if you need it.
Clear expectations and priorities: Aligning team goals with your broader business goals sounds easy, but I’ve seen few companies do it exceptionally well. Alignment is critical to work-life flexibility. In an evolved, flexible environment, everyone understands expected outcomes and is given the autonomy to schedule their time in whatever works best for them, as long as those goals are met. My talent access team knows we push to ensure that no less than 90% of our employee goals are met each quarter. That makes me go to our head of recruitment and say, “Hey, we hit 92% last quarter, but it was just a hair’s breadth in the last two days of the quarter.” I want to make sure we’re at two weeks before the end of the quarter 85% lie so we don’t burn people out. This informs how we allocate our resources and time. We can get early wins and build momentum and positivity early so they can tackle the tougher mid-quarter games.
for this to work, It is the leader’s job to create a space for open and authentic conversations about work-life conflicts. The more open and aligned we can be about the reasons people are elsewhere and not online, the better off the company will be. You don’t want people telling co-workers or supervisors that they have a “doctor’s appointment” every 30 seconds when they have something more delicate to do or something they feel is “not allowed” to do, like a school event or personal training.
The right collaboration tools: Some people want to keep business hours. Some want to work 24/7. We must help people to find their harmony. A robust set of collaboration tools can accommodate today’s asynchronous nature of work: Google Docs, Slack (coupled with the right responsiveness expectations), Miro, Jamboard, Tableau, Loom – we use them all. I love anything that helps people find enough “deep working time” while having impromptu work conversations. The goal should be to find the right balance between collaboration, focus and flextime.
Celebrate impact in a different way: To avoid people pointing fingers at those trying to cut their hours, teams need to make it clear what success looks like. Success is very rarely, if ever, defined by working the most hours. Part of every job goes beyond the deliverable and is a net positive for the team and the culture you are building. If you have four important things you need to do in the next six weeks and you get them done, no one will complain as long as we’ve talked about it as a team and you’re there to help in an emergency.
To attract and retain great talent and provide them with a fulfilling work experience, business leaders must embrace broader concepts of flexibility, transparency and trust. These are the values that, put into practice, make the need for a four-day workweek meaningless. When you can leverage clear expectations, authentic communication, the right incentives, and robust productivity tools, you’ll free your teams to make a big impact in their own way. Giving teams flexibility and agency produces overwhelming results and lets everyone win, including those we love and cherish outside of work.
Zoe Harte is Chief People Officer at Upwork.