With the first Note of 2024, our CEO looks back on one of the most radical changes BD Giving adopted last year, the 4-Day Week. Serving as a companion piece to Jack and Magie’s more personal reflection, this Note sees Géraud de Ville place our trial in a wide context and the implications this has for everyone, not just BD Giving.
In the quest for a more balanced work life and enhanced employee wellbeing, many organisations are exploring alternative work patterns. Just over eight months ago, BD Giving launched a trial for a four-day workweek, where everybody would have Fridays off. The idea was to experiment with working less but better. This would happen through reimagining our work dynamics to enhance productivity within the office, while also liberating one day per week for individuals to pursue personal interests. This could involve contributing to their community, engaging in continuous learning, or prioritising their health and well-being. The impact of this extra free day without loss of pay on individual wellbeing has been substantial, as shared by my colleagues Jack and Magie in a recent blog post.
As the CEO of BD Giving, my perspective on this trial encompasses not just its personal benefits but also the potential implications for the organisation as a whole. Implementing a reduced workweek requires a thoughtful, concerted approach, considering how it fits within the organisational culture and affects productivity, meaning the number of services we are able to provide, as well as the quality, efficiency and effectiveness of these services.
It would be tempting to fall for the assumption that shorter hours at work correlate with decreased output. This is probably my most frequently asked question. However, this persistent myth contradicts historical trends. For all talks around recent slumping productivity rates in the UK, estimates suggest that successive waves of technological innovations have led to a productivity growth of 2.2% per year through the 20th century, an increase of 475%! At the same time, the OECD suggests that in manufacturing alone, work hours have decreased by 50-125% compared with 19th century patterns.
This trend is accelerating. The emergence of AI already shows that many tasks can now be automated. The exponential increase in large language models (LLM) capabilities means that we will soon all have a highly skilled personal assistant in our pocket. Bill Gates predicts that high-income countries are less than two years away from significant AI uses by the general population and even hints at a three-day workweek.
One of the few positive outcomes arising from successive waves of lockdown during the Covid pandemic has been the heightened attention on the structural conditions influencing mental health – an aspect that was previously often disregarded as a personal matter. ONS data estimates that mental health is one of the top five most common reasons for sickness absences in the UK, and this does not affect everyone equally. In 2022, more than one in five young people aged 17 to 24 had a probable mental disorder, nearly a two-fold increase since 2017. While these effects stem from various factors such as financial insecurity and a feeling of helplessness amid broader political and ecological changes, they underscore a collective responsibility. Employers, in particular, play a pivotal role in addressing the well-being of individuals both within and outside the workplace. Recognising these trends calls for a concerted effort to prioritise and support mental health on a broader societal level.
So when people ask me how we ‘make up’ for the loss of 20% of our work time, my answer is to reframe the question and make it about the workforce. The workforce is the backbone of any organisation, and fostering a healthier, more equitable work environment can prevent burnout and absenteeism, and increase employee retention, with benefits for the staff, the organisation and the overall economy. The concept of a four-day workweek isn’t just about time; it’s a paradigm shift in how we perceive work and productivity. It’s about understanding that efficiency doesn’t solely stem from the number of hours worked but from a holistic, balanced approach to employee wellbeing. Fortunately, this is not just happening in progressive non-profit organisations, it is being demonstrated across workplaces, sectors and industries. A pilot in the UK involving 2,900 workers has shown promising results. Of the 61 participating companies, 56 (92%) have indicated they would continue with the four-day workweek, and 18 confirming they would make the policy a permanent change.
At BD Giving, our ethos revolves around trust. Instead of enforcing rigid hour-monitoring systems, we prioritise trusting our colleagues to maintain professionalism and deliver their finest work. This sometimes does come with challenges when it comes to implementation, such as dealing with calculating annual leave entitlements or managing meetings scheduled on our days off. However, ownership of this policy across the team has meant that solutions have been relatively straightforward to find. In response to three consecutive bank holiday Mondays last May, our team proactively proposed not taking Fridays off during those weeks, recognising the need to maintain work quality. This thoughtful initiative has since become an integral part of our policy for shorter weeks coinciding with statutory holidays.
Not falling behind
The incorporation of AI tools is pivotal to our trial and I have actively encouraged my team to explore various tools derived from LLMs. We have embraced a routine practice of refining reports and blog posts using ChatGPT (including this blog!), alongside leveraging AI-powered transcription software in our meetings. Our experimentation extends to planning communication campaigns, designing leaflets, and even constructing chatbots using AI. Additionally, we are keen on equipping all staff with the skills to master prompt engineering. Throughout these endeavours, we maintain a keen awareness of both the potential benefits and inherent risks associated with these technologies. But as DeepMind founder Mustafa Suleyman aptly noted, a new technological wave is imminent, and its impact on society will be profound. I, for one, firmly believe that if increased productivity results from AI integration, it is imperative to ensure that the advantages are distributed equitably among all people rather than being concentrated within a select few.
BD Giving’s trial with the four-day workweek stands as a testament to the transformative potential of restructured work patterns. By emphasising trust, AI, and considering the broader societal impacts, it’s a step towards creating a more sustainable and fulfilling work environment which, we hope, will contribute to sawing the seeds of deeper societal changes and increased wellbeing. In these troubled times and as we enter 2024, my hope is that the growth of the four-day workweek movement globally can act as a small beacon of hope for millions of workers. It symbolises the possibility of positive change, emphasising that collective well-being and a more harmonious work-life balance are attainable goals worth pursuing.
If you’ve been using AI-powered tools in your work, we would love to hear what you are finding useful.