What if giving your employees more flexibility made them more productive?

Estelle Nguyen
24 June 2021

What if we got away from the classic 5-day, 9am-6pm work week that most of our employers impose on us? In this article, we advocate a paradigm shift in which it is the employees who manage the organisation of their working time to find the formula that best suits them and in which they feel more effective.

The alternative of the 4-day week

All studies agree that the work/life balance of employees has become a major issue over the last 10 years for all employer brands. The "4-day week" consists of swapping your usual office hours for a condensed week, limited to 4 days worked. This new practice, which is very popular across the Atlantic and more recently in Europe, can take two forms:

1 - It can be illustrated by a reduction in the hours worked over the week. In this first case, it is a matter of adapting the employment contract and formalising a part-time job at ⅘.

2 - By maintaining the number of hours worked per week, and therefore for the employee to extend his or her daily working hours (for example, to fit 35 hours into 4 days, which amounts to working about 9 hours every day).

The purpose of the 4-day week is mainly to free up time for you to gain 'personal time'. Whether it's to spend more time with your family, to take up that hobby you regret not doing enough of, or to train in a new field, the 4-day week is ideal for employees looking for time. But that is not its only virtue. The condensed week is also an ingenious way to be more efficient in what you do on a daily basis. And finally it makes sense: your resting and disconnection time increases. In most cases, your ability to concentrate is multiplied, you become more productive, are more engaged and feel less stressed in your daily life.

An employee would really only be "at work" for 3 hours - Bureau of Labor Statistics study

In a standard 7-hour day, the Bureau of Labor Statistics study tells us that an employee would really only be "at work" for 3 hours. Realistically, we need to recognise that as employees we all spend a lot of time on non-work activities during our working hours. Visiting our social networks, surfing the web, having a coffee (or two) with our favourite colleague, lingering on the phone or in meetings... All these distractions add up to 12 hours a week (more than one and a half working days). Moreover, even during our moments of concentration, solicitations and interruptions on the phone or in the company chatroom largely affect our productivity without us really realising it (we talk about this at length in a previous article on the Zeigarnik effect). Managing all your sources of distraction is therefore a key issue if you want to adopt the 4-day week. This can be done through very concrete actions such as turning off your chat notifications, blocking deep work slots in your agenda or reducing your break times.

Your aim is to do the same amount of work as if you had worked 5 days in a "normal" week. To do this, you need to be perfectly organised. This organisation mainly lies in the prioritisation of your tasks and priorities. This is an important routine that everyone must consider in their own way: there is no magic formula that will suit everyone. Everyone should make the effort to test several methods and choose the one that suits them best. At HeyAxel, we have automated this process via asynchronous stand-up meetings: this consists of taking 1 minute each morning to write down in black and white what we did the day before, what we want to accomplish during the day and to synthesise potential blockers / problems that need to be brought up to the team. This ritual helps us to approach each day efficiently, never losing sight of our current priorities.

A practice seen in...

Today, this arrangement of working hours is proving its worth in a number of Japanese companies such as Microsoft Japan and Toyota Japan, but also in Europe and the United States at Welcome To The Jungle and Base Camp. Quite impressive results have been observed at Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand company. The company has seen less absenteeism, more punctuality in the workplace, and above all increased productivity, which is reflected in the company's overall performance since the 4-day week was introduced.

What about 5-hour days? Or staggered hours?

In the same way as the 4-day week, the 5-hour day contributes to the employee's work/life balance. This work organisation is based on the idea that we are only really productive for a few hours a day. That we can therefore work less and still be just as productive, provided we do it properly. 

No social network check, a limit on coffee breaks (or no coffee breaks at all, in fact)... This new arrangement of working time requires a quasi-military organisation, not for everyone. 

Tower Paddles, an American wakeboard company, embarked on this condensed day in 2015 and has seen its turnover increase by 50% since. Its secret? A culture of trust... but also a set of internal rules to ensure that their employees do not let themselves go. Their only motto: "100% focus on work".

The trend towards staggered working hours has also been emerging for some years. This is an original philosophy, based on trust in the employee and his or her ability to define when he or she is most effective at work. Often open to teleworking employees, staggered working hours allow them to work the time slots of their choice: this can be very early in the morning, very late in the evening... or even in the middle of the night! This working time format is less widespread than the first two for two main reasons: the psychosocial risks linked to isolation (itself linked to the difference in working hours with colleagues), and the lack of operational synchronisation with other team members or management.