Operating Compressed Hours (Four Day Work Week) – What are the issues?
This article was originally published on 03.03.20. Given the constantly changing environment, since then, this article was updated on 20.05.20. Here is the updated article...
Several campaigns by trade unions, and in particular Public Sector Trade Unions, with the support of environmental groups are evident in the promotion of a four-day week which was gathering some momentum prior to the Covid-19 crisis. Proponents have argued that it could have a positive impact on the environment as it would likely result in less pollution from commuting, as well as help families in terms of arranging childcare. Excessive working hours can of course put a strain on health and productivity and therefore should be discouraged. The rapid conversion to 'remote working' due to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has if anything brought these issues to the fore and they are likely to reemerge as the crisis passes.
Faced with the challenge of responding to the Covid-19 crisis, employers are looking to exhaust any temporary measures to reduce costs as they reopen or in maintaining business continuity, where they have been able to function. We are all facing many challenges as we adapt to new ways of doing business and remote working continues to be encouraged, where possible, for office or non-essential work, where practicable even as the emergency measures are lifted.
Regardless of the shift towards remote working and other forms of flexible working, which is likely to persist for some forms of work, any consideration of the merits of introducing any form of compressed hours working, will require the parties to consider the many implications for the standard full-time week. If a person does eight hours per day, five days a week then e.g. in a 4-day working week they still work e.g. 40 hours but may do 10 hours per day for four days.
However, reducing the number of working hours may also have repercussions on workers’ productivity. This in turns reduces competitiveness of the businesses and consequently adversely affects the economic growth.
Considerations arising will include (but not limited to) the following:
Business needs to decide who can and cannot participate as not everyone may be permitted to work a four-day week based on business needs. Any potential equality or discrimination issues will need to be carefully considered.
The extra day off that would arise does not have to be a Monday or Friday so the employer may designate any day of the week for this purpose based on business needs whilst taking account of the employees’ preference.
If an employee is salaried and there is no liability to pay normal overtime, this will usually be easier to deal with as the person receives the same amount of pay every week, regardless of the number of hours worked or the number of days worked. If an employee is eligible for overtime pay then the implications for overtime payment and its calculation will have to be set out and in compliance with the Organisation of Working Time Act, 1997. If a business is trying to do a 40-hour week in four days this could potentially see employers having to pay more overtime to their workers.
It may also be necessary to set out leave arrangements in terms of the number of hours leave available rather than days and so any established rules in employment contracts or the employee handbook may need to be looked at?
What happens in a week when a Public Holiday falls and what payment is due?
Some Advantages / Disadvantages
The advantages for an employee are obvious as they can have another day with no work and can free up time for personal use. There are also potential benefits with reduced stress for the employee, better productivity and more engaged employees. It could also be a factor in seeking to retain employees in a tight labour market and in the right circumstances has the potential to improve staff morale, retention and quality of output. Potentially, it may also be a factor contributing to less congestion in urban centres at a time when one can reasonably state that congestion and peak times over the working week is already a challenge in our urban centres. Congestion is only likely to deteriorate as the population keeps growing.
However, compressed working will not work for every business or for every employee. If customers expect to find people who are available five days a week, then an employee who is unavailable e.g. every Friday could cause problems. Some sectors are more flexible than others, particularly those which are client-based, but others, like healthcare, the media or the Gardaí, require staff to work over long periods and often at unsociable hours. In these circumstances, employers may be attracted to considering how working hours can be reconfigured to provide extended cover but without premium pay.
The Covid-19 crisis has brought the importance of childcare provision, cost and supply to the fore, particularly for 'essential workers'. A four-day workweek can also make childcare more difficult. Many creches and after-school programs function around the idea that a parent works a more standard working day schedule. They may not normally or wish to open at 6 am or stay open until 8 pm to accommodate a parent’s unusual schedule. The profile and availability of childcare provision following the relaxation of the Covid-19 emergency measures remains very uncertain.
People may have reduced productivity after longer working hours at work in a day or they may feel pressured to call into meetings or respond to messages on a day off.
The Covid-19 crisis has caused many businesses to cut jobs and other costs but also to pause and to think carefully about workforce planning, resourcing and organisation issues. As they work through their immediate responses to the crisis, they will also want to consider the impact too for their longer-term resourcing strategy for their business amidst continuing uncertainty. Where people return to their familiar office spaces, there will also be the opportunity to learn and share experiences of what has and has not worked well during the 'lockdown', to better understand and explore insights about work organisation and opportunities to create the future. As we have learned to adjust to social distancing, in many cases, it has often led to some degree of personal isolation kind and inevitably will now drive real innovations in work organisation and configuration in response to both business and employee needs.
However, organisations must be able to decide what working time arrangements best suits the business and in doing so to take account of individual needs. The matter is not as straightforward as advocates for a four day week suggest and, in any circumstance, where parties may be willing to consider its possible introduction as a form of flexible working, along with considering all of the issues mentioned this will also need to be considered as part of the suite of post Covid-19 temporary and longer term future planning responses by the organisation. Even where the notion of a compressed working week regains interest, post Covid-19 as it may as part of the promotion of all forms of flexible working, organisations would need to assess the merit of conducting a ‘pilot’ compressed working week for a period to see how it would operate in practice.
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The information in this article is for guidance only and does not constitute legal advice. The answers to specific situations will vary depending on the circumstances of each case. You should consult Stratis for information and advice relevant to individual circumstances facing your business.