Quality over quantity: Making the flexible working week, work 

By Daryl Hine, Chief Operating Officer, Stellar Asset Management  

Having piloted a four-day working week during a pioneering trial in 2022, we have now adopted this new flexible way of working. The benefits not only include improved employee wellbeing, recruitment and retention, but also a more driven, focused and high performing workforce. However, you cannot just impose this kind of change and expect employees to run with it. Success requires workforce buy-in, clarity over expectations and an open and collaborative culture. What attracted our organisation to a four-day working week? What are the advantages for the customers we serve? What can other organisations learn from our experience? 

When I look back at how we worked before the pandemic, there was a lot of wariness about flexibility. Naturally, our employees could work different hours to accommodate caring responsibilities, coming back to work after illness and other special circumstances. We also had the technology to allow us to communicate, collaborate and work remotely. Nonetheless, the default expectation was that employees should be in the office five days a week.  

Then came the sudden switch to remote working during lockdown. The experience opened our eyes to a whole new world of possibilities. Productivity was not just maintained but improved. Our people felt more trusted, empowered and ready to innovate. 

 The best place to be  

As we emerged from lockdown, we were determined to maintain the positive aspects of remote working. A key part of this was giving employees the choice of whether to work from home or in the office depending on what works best for them on the day. The office is the ideal place to engage as a team and bounce ideas off each other. However, there are also days when the eyes-down focus and lack of distraction of working from home are preferable – when we are pouring over spreadsheets or need to finish a report, for example.  

As a forward-looking company, we also wanted to strengthen wellbeing and work-life balance, while harnessing the potential of new technology. So when we heard about the four-day week trial, we were intrigued. For six months, we would offer 100% pay for 80% of the time, in exchange for a commitment to 100% productivity. 

 Embracing change  

A four-day week might sound radical. In reality, the nine-to-five routine and two-day weekend are relatively recent developments. They were designed for a pre-digital age that did not have the automation, artificial intelligence and other smart tools we now have at our disposal. Despite all this technology, it makes little sense that people in the UK still work as many hours as they did a century ago, with all the stress and risk of burnout this entails.  

Moreover, it is fair to question whether all the hours in a standard five-day week are genuinely productive. It is all too easy to fritter away time in needless meetings, on tasks that technology could carry out faster or simply texting and surfing the web. The priorities should be working smarter not longer, quality over quantity. 

By easing stress, increasing time with friends and family and giving people more time to develop personally and professionally, a range of research has shown that a four-day week not only helps to attract and retain prized talent, but also increases their motivation and performance.  

 Winning hearts and minds 

The big question was whether a four-day week would work for us – it does not work for every organisation. We knew that this question could only be answered by our employees rather than the leadership. As an executive team we set some stipulations including the need to achieve in four days what had been delivered in five, while providing a full five-day service for customers. We also did not want our staff to chop and change their extra day off. 

However, we delegated the day-to-day design, management and monitoring of the trial to employees taking part in our newly created leadership development programme. This provided invaluable experience for them as future leaders. Crucially, the ground-up engagement also helped to win buy-in from our employees and enable them to develop approaches that work best for them and their teams.  

 Helping each other to succeed 

The leadership development team gathered feedback about how each member of staff felt about working fewer days, what they had gained from it and the challenges they faced.  

What came through strongly was how much morale and wellbeing improved as our people gained more time for themselves and their families. But there were also hurdles to overcome.  

We certainly found that this kind of change in how people work can only be successful when there is a foundation of trust between employers and employees. This can be achieved by setting clear expectations, providing regular feedback, and recognising and rewarding good performance. 

Further priorities include clear guidelines and expectations. To help define and align organisational goals, we have moved from managing performance around key performance indicators (KPIs) to a more collaborative, transparent and accountable objectives and key results (OKR) approach.

Some employees did find it difficult to complete all their work in four days rather than five. So teams came together to strengthen support and tackle these challenges. This includes investing in new tools such as Microsoft Viva Goals, which help our teams to connect, collaborate and schedule their time more efficiently. We have also launched initiatives such as a regular ‘diary detox’ to help employees free-up all the hours spent in meetings they do not really need to attend.  

 Sustaining the gains  

Having seen the benefits and addressed the initial challenges, we have now adopted a flexible working week.  

While the foundations are in place, our experience underlines the need to review and adjust working arrangements to ensure they are effective. For us, this has included a change in how we frame the extra day from a ‘gift day’ to a ‘flexible working day’. The switch makes it clear that our new way of working can only deliver the benefits when people support each other rather than looking at it as a contractual right. This includes attending occasional meetings or putting in additional hours on the extra day when the team needs it.  

What is also clear is that keeping employees engaged and motivated while working remotely or on flexible schedules can be difficult. It’s therefore important to ensure that employees feel heard and valued.  

In turn, flexible working can blur the boundaries between work and personal life, making it difficult for employees to switch off and maintain a healthy work-life balance. It is therefore important to provide support and guidance to help employees manage their time effectively. 

 All for one 

As flexible working becomes routine, the benefits continue to come through. 

For me personally, the four-day week has been a great step forward on many fronts. What I love is the flexibility to choose what I do with that extra day. This might be catching up with friends, going for a long walk or just getting chores done, along with working on to-dos which never seem to get to the top of the list.  

For us as an organisation, by helping us to focus on what really counts and work better as a team, I believe that the four-day week has improved our ability to deliver our mission and make a real difference for clients.