After a successful 18-month trial, our organisation Stopaids has decided to permanently implement the shorter working week for all our staff. We have had such a positive experience with it that we would encourage the rest of the NGO and charity sector to consider doing the same.
I had read with great interest about the growing number of organisations that had successfully introduced the four-day working week and I was eager for our small team of 16 to see whether it would work for us too. It seemed really important to explore whether we could join this movement towards a better work-life balance across society.
Back in October 2019, we began a pilot to try and find out whether a shorter working week would result in greater wellbeing among our workforce, whilst still allowing us to remain a high-impact organisation that punches above our weight. We engaged external think tank Autonomy to help us think through the implementation and conduct an external evaluation.
The four-day week is generally understood as a reduction to a 32-hour working week with no loss of pay but as we already worked a 35-hour week, we decided to reduce to 28 hours a week and keep flexibility for staff to work that amount of time across four or five days. Most staff chose to work four days a week with Friday off but a few staff worked fewer hours across five days.
At the start, we were enthusiastic about the pilot but were very clear that while increasing staff wellbeing was an important outcome, it was insufficient on its own to consider the pilot a success. As well as improved staff wellbeing, a successful pilot must also find increased productivity and maintain levels of outcomes and impact.
We agreed that we would scrap the idea entirely if it didn’t meet all these criteria. However, on every single measure, the pilot was an overwhelming success. This was confirmed by external evaluations after both six months and 18 months.
Our staff have reported feeling less stressed and pressured by work and life demands, and they are more energised and much better rested. Between the baseline and the end of the pilot, we found a reduction in reported stress across the board – and that was even despite the negative stressful effects of a global pandemic.
We had read some research before about the four-day week boosting productivity, such as in Japan, where Microsoft introduced it and saw productivity rise by 40 per cent – but we remained unsure that this would apply to us as a much smaller organisation that does a very different type of work. However, the research was right, our team is now much more efficient and productive with the time they spend in work and have achieved at least the same level of output and impact as they had working five days a week.
It almost seems counterintuitive but it is incredible to find that by having more time to relax and take your mind off work and get your personal life administration out of the way, you have more energy and focus throughout your work and are therefore more productive and can have a greater impact than before.
There have been other surprising benefits too. A survey given to newer staff asked if the shorter working influenced their decision to join the organisation when we told them about the pilot at the interview stage. For most, it was a positive deciding factor in taking the job. Now that we can publicise our shorter working week at the advert stage we believe that it will attract new talent to an organisation.
After the pilot, 100 per cent of staff agreed that the working culture within Stopaids provides personal autonomy within their role. One staff member also commented that they had a feeling of being “valued by the organisation and trusted to complete the work you have each week, without feeling chained to your desk”.
In the NGO and charity sector, staff often drive themselves to go above and beyond at work because, as change-makers and campaigners, we believe passionately in the work that we do. Mental health and wellbeing can take a toll for staff particularly when crises hit societies and our organisations step up to provide support or seek to make change. The Covid crisis has been no exception. But the shorter working week has proven to be a soothing balm for our staff that has helped them more effectively weather the Covid storm personally but also be more effective in their work to respond to the pandemic.
After trialling the four-day week for 18 months, I am now convinced that the NGO and charity sector should be leading by example when it comes to creating a better working life.
Mike Podmore is the director of Stopaids