Does the insurance industry have an appetite to try a four-day working week, or will this simply exacerbate some of the difficulties already experienced as a result of homeworking?

By Editor Katie Scott

In January 2022, the 4 Day Week Campaign announced a new pilot scheme in the UK in conjunction with think tank Autonomy and researchers at Cambridge University, Oxford University and Boston College.

Katie Scott_bw_path

Katie Scott

This will see around 30 UK-based companies trial a four-day working week for six months, while still paying staff for five days of work a week.

The pilot aims to uncover whether less working days actually makes employees more productive, as well as generally happier. With this in mind, the university researchers will be measuring staff productivity and wellbeing in the upcoming months, as well as the scheme’s impact on the environment and gender equality.

Having spent over three years as a trade journalist in the HR, reward and employee benefits sector prior to my current stint in insurance, the concept of the four-day working week was not new to me. However, upon hearing about the new trial, I was intrigued to get the insurance sector’s stance on the subject, especially as most firms are currently finessing hybrid working plans for post-pandemic life.

Insurance Times has reported on some of the struggles insurance companies have been experiencing around implementing and managing homeworking – regarding both insurers and brokers – so would a four-day working week simply add another dimension to the confusion, encourage staff to return to offices or better help individuals to find the holy grail of work-life balance?

After pipping the question to my network of insurance comrades via LinkedIn on Monday morning, I sat back and waited for what I assumed would be an onslaught of opinion. Apparently not, however.

My post received eight thumbs up and only one public comment – from Laura Hancock, director at Yutree Insurance. Although she noted the downsides of a four-day working week as centring around “customer service and quality of work”, she mainly feels adopting this working pattern could be positive – especially in terms of driving equality.

She said: “My overriding pro is the one around equality. The number of women not working, or working reduced hours, is grossly disproportionate to the number of men doing so. I think this could level that particular playing field.”

Other plus points to working four days a week are “around wellbeing and reducing [firms’] carbon footprint”, she added.

Broker Yutree Insurance has already amended its working practices as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Back in May 2021, Hancock told virtual Biba conference attendees that her firm had re-written its employment contracts to include flexible working practices.

‘Pinnacle’ of work-life balance?

Other feedback I received, however, remained off social media and portrayed a rather mixed bag of opinions.

Prina Mashru, head of HR at broker Konsileo, was sceptical that a four-day working week would have the massive work-life balance benefits that campaigners have been touting.

She said: “The conversation around flexible working needs to move on from the idea of a four-day week being the pinnacle of work-life balance.

“A four-day timetable still ties people down to a rigid structure that doesn’t allow for real life – for things like caring responsibilities and domestic emergencies, or for things like working across time zones or on big deals that need extra attention.

“At Konsileo, we’ve found that we get the best out of people by letting them be their best in every part of their life – and trusting them to manage their own time.

“Collaboration is key so work can be handed to and fro smoothly and off time can be respected - but it’s a culture in which we definitely get the better end of the deal. We have great, motivated people who want to do great things with us. And that should be the ultimate goal of flexible working.”

Stuart Reid, chairman of broker Partners&, was also dubious.

Although he thought there was no obstacle physically preventing a four-day working week being implemented at insurance firms – and that work-life balance was an increasingly important factor for staff post-pandemic – he said that getting employees to come back into offices at all has been problematic, regardless of the number of days a week they are working.

He added that resignations were on the up from staff who were no longer being permitted to exclusively work from home.

Another consideration Reid discussed with me was the sheer volume of work faced by many insurance firms – he explained that many companies simply don’t have enough staff to fulfil existing workloads and outstanding tasks, so what would be the potential ramifications of reducing working hours to four rather than five days a week?

Exacerbating current issues

One broker, however, told me that a four-day working week would be a dreadful idea bearing in mind the difficulties many brokers have had during the pandemic in terms of getting hold of underwriters to talk through risks.

With response waiting times already increasing, this broker was concerned that a four-day working week would exacerbate an already evident issue.

Looking at the 4 Day Week Campaign’s website, currently 41 companies are accredited as four-day week employers. A quick peruse of the genres of these firms revealed that the insurance sector is distinctly missing, although digital marketing firms, charities and some manufacturers have already taken the plunge.

Do insurance firms simply spin too many plates at once to really enable a four-day working week to thrive – especially in terms of compliance? Does this type of model really work for larger companies or is it better suited to SMEs? Is it something insurance staff would even have the appetite for?

Firms have until the end of March to sign up for 4 Day Week Campaign’s six-month pilot. Training and onboarding to the scheme will take place in April 2022, followed by collecting base metrics in May. The pilot will officially start in June and run until December.

I’ll certainly be interested to see if any insurance organisations opt to give the four-day working week a try and what the results are at the end of the year.

My main concern is that although a four-day working week is designed to bolster work-life balance and employee wellbeing, if staff are still required to perform the same workload volume, then less working days may actually contribute to presenteeism and employee burnout, which in turn could lead to stints of sick leave.

I do think a four-day working week could have its benefits - however, it won’t succeed in a silo. It will need to form part of a collaborative workplace culture that embraces other proactive, wellbeing-based initiatives too.