With accusations of a “toxic atmosphere” swirling at Asda and workers on the verge of a historic first strike, the billionaire owners of the supermarket chain have pulled out what they clearly think will be a trump card – offering staff a four-day-work week.
The Issa brothers are hoping that a shorter working week will help to appease store managers, who are “leaving in their droves”, according to reports in The Telegraph. Asda has reportedly experienced a 13.9% increase in turnover among retailer managers following a string of cost cuts and amid concerns over the supermarket’s workplace culture.
The business’s top brass hope that the four-day-week trial, which will conclude later this month and is running alongside other tests of more flexible and shorter shifts, will help to appease disgruntled store managers. But while the proposals put forward have temporarily postponed the strike action planned at its Gosport superstore, it’s foolish to think that these flexible-working measures will be enough to mend the damaged relationship between store managers and Asda bosses.
The benefits of a four-day-work week
It is true that offering a four-day-work week can have positive impacts on a business. The results of the UK’s trial, published last year, found that many of the businesses involved reported improved productivity, talent attraction and staff retention; one company had an 88% increase in job applications after moving to a four-day week.
Through this lens, it’s easy to see why Asda is trialling a shorter work week to help halt its exodus of talent. But the grievances held by the grocery store’s staff run far deeper.
The issues are manifold. For starters, the GMB union has criticised the treatment of its Asda members, which it alleges include creating a “toxic” working atmosphere, wage errors, and health and safety concerns. Offering more flexibility in working hours for store managers does little to fix these issues.
On top of that, Asda workers have seen some colleagues threatened with ‘fire and rehire’ tactics, while wages have stagnated even as rival supermarkets up pay and Asda executives have been questioned by MPs over price rises. It’s unsurprising, then, that Asda staff no longer trust the people leading the business and believe they can find better jobs elsewhere in the retail sector.
Flexible working is not the answer to all workplace issues
This is not to say that flexibility isn’t valued highly by UK workers; 29% state that they want more agile-working arrangements in Robert Half’s latest recruitment survey. But the results also found that a much higher proportion – 50% – say they would refuse to work for an organisation which holds values that don’t match their own.
If Asda truly wants to address the attrition it’s seeing among retail managers, it must take a long-term view. There is clearly a need to rebuild trust between staff and the company’s leadership, and correct some of the mistakes made by its owners.
Accountability, transparency and communication are key. Maybe a four-day week is the answer, but management needs to take the time to listen to people’s concerns and address the wider cultural issues at the business as a priority. After all, working four days a week in a toxic work environment is just as undesirable as working for five.