From motorcycling to wild swimming, employees at Atom Bank have been making the most of their extra free time since the company moved to a four-day week. When it made the switch in November 2021, the Durham-based business was the largest UK company to trial a shorter working week. Having deemed the pilot a success, it intends to make the change permanent.
“There was always going to be an element of nervousness on my part about whether it could work for us,” admits Atom Bank’s chief people officer, Anne-Marie Lister. “But all our research points to the positive impacts it has had on the organisation.”
Several benefits have accrued from the bank’s new workplace policy. Staff surveys have revealed that the vast majority of respondents (92%) feel they are working more efficiently than they were on a five-day week. Employees are 13% more engaged than they were a year ago and they’re also feeling more motivated, with 92% of staff saying that they look forward to their work.
The four-day week could also be having a positive effect on employees’ health. Although 2021 should be treated as an outlier in terms of sickness absence, given the ongoing impact of Covid that year, it’s still worth noting that the bank lost 72 working days to sickness this June, compared with 230 days in June 2021.
“We wanted to see an increase in employee wellbeing and productivity, aligned to efficiencies that we were finding in the ways people were working,” Lister says. “So it was really pleasing to see such a high number of employees reporting efficiencies so early in the trial.”
While she accepts that not all of the improvements can be attributed to the four-day week alone, it has been “the driver within some of the success”.
A 500% increase in job applications
The bank’s attractiveness as an employer has also soared since it adopted the new working pattern, according to Lister. She reports that there was “a 500% increase in job applications” in the week after it announced the trial. Although many of them were speculative, with some applicants clearly lured only by the prospect of some extra time off, these didn’t outnumber the genuine ones.
“If people were attracted to the policy, and to us as an organisation as a result, that’s a huge win for us,” she says. “Many candidates we have interviewed said that they would love to work for an organisation that’s so progressive and future-focused. That’s awesome feedback for us to get.”
It has been important for the bank to stress to potential recruits that its employment contracts still stipulate a 37-and-a-half-hour week. All contracts will be updated at the start of next year to reflect the permanent switch to the new pattern.
“We’ve had to make it clear to candidates that, although we want to move to a shorter week permanently, we are still in a trial period, so the contract that they’d receive would stipulate five days a week,” Lister explains. “Some employers in a similar position are struggling to communicate this.”
The importance of persistence
Lister was acutely aware that the change would not be an overnight success. Persistence has been key to making the four-day week viable.
“We’re a company of 480 people, but that’s relatively small for a bank,” she says. “We have many small teams and, from an operational perspective, finding cover while also adapting to a four-day week does become quite difficult. It’s not insurmountable, but it does require flexibility on all sides.”
The company agreed from the outset that the pilot would be halted if the changes had any negative impact on customers or employees, or if it ran into compliance problems.
Lister worked closely with departmental heads to estimate the potential ramifications of the trial before it started. This enabled the bank to assess whether there were any material risks before approving the project.
The prospect of moving to a four-day week “can be quite concerning for some people in the organisation”, she says, noting that this is especially true if they’re already feeling pushed for time while working five days a week.
In such cases, the onus should be on each team to work out how the changes can best be implemented. “It can be a bit of a challenge to bring those people with you”, Lister says, “but the answers lie with them.”
One of the most common concerns that employers have when they adopt a four-day week is that more people will be needed to cover the work lost as a result of the reduction in hours. This was a particular worry for Atom Bank, which employs several specialists in niche roles. Despite this, Lister reports that there have been no requests for extra staffing relating to the four-day week.
“It shows that people have been able to find enough efficiencies in how they work to improve their output,” she says, pointing to a significant reduction in the amount of time that employees are spending in meetings. “I can understand some companies thinking that they’ll need to recruit more staff when moving to four days, but they may not be accounting for the productivity benefits they’re likely to see.”
As the company commits to a permanent four-day week, there’s an understanding in the organisation that further adjustments may yet be appropriate.
“We’ve been working five days a week for almost 100 years, so it’s going to take a while to undo that,” Lister says. “My fear is that, if businesses don’t achieve overnight success with the four-day week, they might give up on it. We have felt those challenges too, but we’ve overcome them. It absolutely does benefit your business.”