Major biomedical research charity the Wellcome Trust is seriously exploring the prospect of moving its staff on to a four-day week, it has emerged.

In a surprise announcement of 18 January, the Trust’s director of policy and chief of staff Ed Whiting said: “Like many organisations, Wellcome is continually looking at how we can increase the impact we make towards our charitable mission and improve staff wellbeing. Moving to a four-day week is one of a number of very early ideas that we are looking at that might be beneficial to welfare and productivity for everyone at Wellcome.

“It will be some months before we can consider a formal decision and we’re carefully considering the potential impact it could have on both our staff and the external community.” [1]

The same day, Whiting provided further detail on his organisation’s thinking in an interview with The Guardian. In particular, he noted, the Trust has taken a keen interest in the case of New Zealand estate-planning firm Perpetual Guardian, which carried out a move to a four-day week last year – the impact of which was formally assessed by leadership experts from academic institutions.

“It looks like moving the working week to four days rather than five gets you a broader productivity and wellbeing benefit,” he told the paper. “You have a healthier workforce, a reduction in sickness absence and improved sense of work-life balance.” He added: “If you have a shorter working week you have to think: how can you use your time really effectively? It’s the concept of seeing time as the most finite thing. You have less slacker time in your day.” [2]

Interestingly, in a Forbes blog last autumn, The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper noted of Perpetual Guardian’s decision: “One theme that really stands out … is the impact on morale. As well as helping [staff] to feel more valued, the outcomes of the new, four-day week boosted their passion and enthusiasm for the business … workers wanted to repay the company for what they considered to be improved work-life balance.” [3]

According to the Telegraph, the Wellcome Trust is the second-biggest donor to medical research after the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. [4] Indeed, The Guardian points out that if the charity does end up switching to a four-day week, it would be “the biggest organisation anywhere in the world” to do so.

Could this pave the way for the four-day week to become a mainstream policy?

Reflecting upon the Trust’s announcement in light of her Forbes blog, Cooper says: “I absolutely stand by my earlier comments on the morale factor. The crucial thing to remember is that, with any change on this sort of systemic level, there will be forces for and forces against. In this case, it is clear from Whiting’s words that the Trust can see the gains it could make in the area of morale. But I suspect that there are also some pressing, industry-specific considerations at work, here.”

She explains: “Perhaps organisations in the Trust’s sector have a deeper understanding than most of what a talent shortage really means – and what investing in people means, too. Knowledge workers are key to making charities work. So retaining them, keeping them happy and inspiring their loyalty is essential. From the work of Herzberg [5] onwards, studies have repeatedly shown that it’s not money that motivates people or keeps them loyal. Yes, it’s part of the equation – but by itself, it doesn’t fuel a desire to stay in your role that’s so strong you’re not even looking around for another job. That only happens when different types of benefits enable you to fit your job around the other parts of your life.”

However, she notes: “We need to take account of the forces against these moves, too. In parallel with a growing interest in alternative forms of the working week, we are also seeing a mounting demand for 24/7 access to doctors, estate agents and lawyers. So the challenge for leaders is to somehow square the circle and satisfy those two, opposing forces.

“I think that, as a concept, ‘the weekend’ is becoming more elastic and mobile. For many lower-paid workers, the weekend may even have a sense of privilege attached to it, as it is not always possible to have one. And for any firm that has expensive plant machinery and lots of orders to fill, it may not want to close for two, clear days per week anyway. So a four-day week for personnel may not actually mean a four-day week for the organisation. Making logistical sense of that would involve some shrewd scheduling.”

Cooper points out: “Once your four-day week is in place, another challenge is, how do you sustain it? When the watershed happens, staff will be motivated, inspired and grateful. But when new people join, they may take it for granted, because they haven’t been through the same, transformative journey that longer-serving staff have experienced.”

She adds: “It’s important to analyse the challenges and demands of your industry when making these game-changing decisions. If it turns out that you are unable to ‘reward’ your staff with a four-day week, there may be other means of securing your employees’ loyalty by helping them to feel more important and valued. And of course, one way to find out what would make a difference is simply to ask them.”

For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on the healthy workplace

Source refs: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

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