The 430 staff employees of Atom Bank, an online bank based in Durham, United Kingdom, will now have the option to work just four days a week. It becomes part of a growing but unfortunately still limited trend of particularly innovative companies instituting three-day weekends for their employees.
Atom Bank is the first bank that operates entirely online—it has exactly zero physical branches—to gain a full regulatory license in the United Kingdom. This kind of forward-thinking mindset, along with employees’ desire for more flexible schedules during the pandemic, prompted the company to undertake a review of the potential policy. It found a shorter workweek would not affect customer service or productivity.
“Before COVID, the conventional wisdom was you had to commute in, sit at a desk all day and repeat that process when you commuted home,” said Mark Mullen, co-founder and CEO of the company.”COVID showed us that it wasn’t necessary…I think doing 9-5, Monday to Friday is a pretty old-fashioned way of working.”
Before the policy went into effect on November 1, Atom employees worked 37.5 hours per week, a 40-hour schedule minus a half-hour break (presumably for lunch) every day. Now, they work 34 hours on either a Monday through Thursday or Tuesday through Friday schedule.
To confirm the math you might be doing in your head, that does mean that employees are working longer on the days they are on, eight-and-a-half hours a day plus a half-hour lunch means nine hours between clocking in and clocking out.
So far, it seems that having an entire extra day for personal productivity and/or relaxation away from is worth a slightly longer workday for the bank’s employees.
“Everyone is expected to stick to it,” Mullen said of the voluntary policy, which nevertheless has shifted how his company operates for everyone. “I can’t be sending my staff emails on a Friday. I can’t expect them to respond to them.”
Atom’s experience is in line with what is rapidly becoming a convincing body of evidence supporting shortening the working week. An experiment in Iceland that eventually included one percent of the working population, found that shorter hours led to steady or increased productivity. Companies around the world, including Microsoft in Japan and Unilever in New Zealand, have run their own experiments with similar results.
A Congressman in the United States, a country famously obsessed with work, even introduced legislation to formally shorten the workweek to 32 hours (i.e. start to require overtime to be paid starting with a worker’s 33rd hour of the week.) It’s far from becoming law, but it’s still encouraging for those who imagine a working world that leaves more time for personal fulfillment — and more time for parents to, well, parent.
Of course, transitioning away from the five-day workweek that’s been the norm at least since Henry Ford instituted the weekend at his factories in 1926 does not come without its complications. But the more evidence mounts that a four-day workweek that benefits workers and doesn’t harm production, the more likely it becomes that other companies will join Atom in giving their workers that option.
As Mullen summed it up, “With COVID-19 causing vast numbers of people to reconsider how they want to live their lives, anything that leads to more productive, healthier, and, crucially, happier colleagues, is a win for everyone.”