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By Andrew Jones, is CEO of agile management consultancy, Agility in Mind

Nearly a year ago, Atom Bank became one of the first UK financial services firms to move its workforce to a four-day working week without reducing their pay. A survey which measured the trial’s success six months in found that 92% of Atom Bank’s workforce reported starting to work more efficiently due to their reduced hours. As workers’ expectations of flexibility grew, managers across the sector were paying attention to see whether this might be a viable path for their own business to consider.

However, the results Atom Bank recorded are in contrast to some of those from a UK-wide four-day working week trial run by campaign group ‘4 Day Week Global’, a think tank and academics from Oxford, Cambridge and Boston College, which is currently being undertaken by 73 companies. Reports of ‘deep chaos’, difficulties, and hindrance when it comes to hiring have been rife in the media since the scheme’s inception.

Although many organisations in sectors such as retail and manufacturing have long operated with a model which allows much of their workforce to work less than five days a week, the focus on promoting healthy work/life balances has led companies across all sectors – including finance – to evaluate whether this could be an optimal model for their staff.

Simply put, it’s often not. There are two main drawbacks to this type of intense focus on a four-day working week as the only means of initiating a healthier work/life balance; the loss of flexibility for employees and the possibility of unintentional exploitation of workers unable to free themselves from others’ conflicting work schedules. When it comes to the loss of flexibility for workers, take the example of working parents. If they are expected to work longer hours, what will procedure be when they need to pick their children up from school or provide childcare in the early evening?

For those who work within a financial services provider, the opportunity to be unintentionally exploited is thrown wide open by conflicts in schedule between the team and their clients. Finance sector stakeholders, managers and clients often demand premium services in an ‘always-on’ culture which sees many companies regularly working with clients overseas. As has so often been the case for those returning to work part-time, they may find themselves working more than their contracted hours for no extra pay. The temptation to respond to emails on a weekly day off or attend an event may lead to a less healthy work/life balance than to begin with.

Challenges to productivity – and how to address them

Businesses across the financial services sector are facing plethora of challenges ranging from supply chain delays to rising operational costs. Focusing on productivity through volatile times is often easier said than done, but there are three core actions managers can take to help this process.

Move into the mindset of seeing things from a value perspective. Managers should be focussing in on the services and products the company already offers as well as existing processes to assess where efficiencies can be made. By listening to those close to the processes they largely oversee, or on ‘the shop floor’, who might have simple yet effective ways of streamlining their processes, they can foster a culture of finding a better way of doing things.

Be extra vigilant of how teams are faring. With so much disruption to the way we work and live, coupled with the growing cost-of-living crisis, managers should be extra vigilant of how their teams are faring. By treating their teams as individuals with different motivations and needs, they can work to keep as many of their team as happy as possible, in turn inspiring their loyalty.

Make sure your workforce is aligned with the company’s vision and has a sense of purpose. Key to ensuring that their workforce remains productive despite pressures outside of work is to talk to them about what’s important to them and what gives them a sense of purpose. By understanding what makes someone happy at work, leaders can empower employees and build a working culture that tackles the difficult business climate head on.

While the motivation behind initiating a four-day working week might be a noble one, employers must be wary of letting rigorous schedules define flexibility for employees. It may work for some, but it is not a catch all solution to improving work/life balance for all. Recognition that each employee is an individual with their own life outside of work will go a lot further in establishing good working practises.

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