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Could a Four-Day Work Week Prevent Quiet Quitting?

Quiet quitting. Four-day (work) week. Two of the most uttered phrases of 2022 when talking about the world of work.

One of these phrases is the sad symptom of a raft of organizational problems, the other offers a new way of working that challenges a bizarrely held orthodoxy. The two are connected and they may well be inversely related. Here we explore how a four-day workweek (4DWW) can positively impact the worrying phenomenon of quiet quitting.

Circuit breaker? A positive disruption

The rapid reactions to and realizations of the global pandemic, such as remote working en masse and the regard for key workers, were followed by some leaders’ calls to return to the office and to pre-2020 conditions. This year has, though, seen some organizations move beyond that rhetoric and into a more dynamic approach to work. People-centric businesses are taking the time to listen, be creative and reset.

This circuit breaker to design the future has been the disruption required to challenge those long-held orthodox ways of working and understand what work means to us. Set against a backdrop of increasingly complex and unpredictable circumstances during the peak of the pandemic, we all seemed to overtly re-evaluate what mattered to us. We used that circuit breaker to rethink our very lives.

Organizations that are not using this circuit breaker to reimagine how they operate are in danger of malfunctioning and are risking not only losing their edge, but also the very competitive advantage they created prior to lockdowns.

Quiet quitting? A paradoxically loud rebellion

If we are persuaded by some of the statistics, this rethink at a human level has caused resignations, reshuffling and recalibrating. It has caused people to rail against work “overload” and has resulted in more pronounced disengagement, low morale and, eventually, burnout. People are rebelling against toxic cultures and overly controlling, dogmatic leadership.

All of these symptoms are potentially what is leading to the phenomenon of quiet quitting.

People are evidently unwilling to go “the extra mile” (and indeed, it could be argued this has been abused by less scrupulous employers for some time) and when quiet quitting, people are “working to rule” and doing no more than is contractually mandated

Quiet quitting may be a trend popularized on TikTok, but it cannot be ignored. Irrespective of how we perceive it, it appears to be happening in large numbers - enough to make media headlines, become a conference topic and even get on board agendas.

A state of flourishing at work? From ideation to reality

Individuals have their own reasons for any part they play in quiet quitting, but fulfilment at work should never have been some unobtainable mirage for the many, nor should it be oversold or even faked by some employers. Positive experiences of worth and mattering and the fulfilment mentioned above should be attainable whatever work we do.

Fulfilling work is about directly linking what people value in life to an organization’s reason for being and purpose. This alignment can be found in recognizable people practices; particularly development, recognition, inclusion, and influence - resulting in care and wellbeing alongside a balanced and sustainable sense of achievement.

Knowing that what we do matters is vital to our esteem, identity, self-regard and relatedness to the world around us.

The four-day week? Change in rhythm and mindset

The four-day week is a part of a different form of circuit breakers. A move from hours and outputs to impact and value creation. And closing gaps between the full-time majority and the part-time minority, who are not less capable but are on the clock for fewer hours.

The idea that jobs are designed to exist within 40-hour bubbles is, at best, hopeful and, more likely, an illusionary practice - especially for intense work like healthcare and utilities or complex work found in science and education. We should be less focused on hours and more focused on impact. We should less treat people as programmable organic entities and more as variable and creative souls capable of extraordinary feats of endeavour given the right circumstances.

A recent Forbes article suggested that the 4DWW is an alternative to quiet quitting. This remains to be proven but the experiences and the sense of it go beyond the disenchantment of the quiet quitting viral phenomenon. As a proponent of Systems Thinking, I believe it is more than a cure. It’s about evolutionary systems coming into play.

Here are four perspectives on what really matters to people:

  • People in employment who feel they lack development are 2X more likely to leave a job in the next year. For those who remain, a lack of stimulation (from development and/or recognition) could lead to finding themselves in a state of “quiet quitting”. (Culture Amp)
  • The number one reason that people are resigning is the lack of work flexibility. (2022 Culture Report from Achievers Workforce Institute)
  • 86% of UK firms who are trialling the 4DWW want to stay in that model beyond the pilot period. (4 Day Week Campaign)
  • “There’s strong evidence for the benefits of the four-day week: we know it’s better environmentally; it improves gender equality, and it makes people happier and less stressed”. (The RSA)

Such findings show us how a 4DWW could begin to turn the tide of 21st-century business towards more balance, choice and fairness. And yes, to more humanly ways of creating enterprise, efficiency and prosperity.

To look forward, it can be helpful to look back: when looking at the history of the five-on-two-off work rhythm, we have to go back to the 1920s, to when Henry Ford established it. 100 years later, and having felt the effects of a global pandemic, people need change. This rhythm has become expected, as has working well above these contracted hours.

A balanced life? Less time, better work

At People & Transformational HR, we have been a four-day operating week enterprise since July 2020. We are proud to be a mentor as part of the UK-wide pilot scheme spearheaded by the 4 Day Week Campaign* (*we are halfway through the biggest trial ever undertaken in this way). Before the quiet quitting insurgence, we believed in this movement as a positive step toward a balanced life. A 4DWW is about wellbeing, balance and accomplishment; it is about recalibrating what enriching experiences of work should be like.

Indeed, the 4DWW isn’t just about finding a balanced life, but also about understanding energy. This was a topic I explored in my second book, The Energized Workplace. In a truly balanced life, we measure energy, rather than just time investment and we accept the blurring of lines between our professional and personal existences. This we have seen at PTHR with the introduction of our Wellness Wednesday. We punctuate the week allowing us to refresh, reset and tackle our work as 2x 2-day sprints. Nothing is compressed, everything is reimagined. We are more energized, therefore we are more effective. Less time, better work.

Within the debate on whether or not a 4DWW should become the new default, there is a sub-debate over which day is no longer worked on. Data on this is yet to emerge but at PTHR our punctuated week works for us. It works because we survey this bi-annually.

Indeed, it may not even be a “shutters-down” day for everyone. It could be shared across teams and therefore continuity of customer access is not restricted. It has to be flexible and doesn’t have to become a longer weekend for all.

And whether this and the quiet quitting phenomenon are interwoven may never be known in a causal sense. What is a correlated range of factors though, are that people are tired, lost and jaded by some forms of work and that a 4DWW can give people back time, afford them agency over their lives and bring more balance to the working week.

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