‘You can’t be innovative without being brave’: Atom Bank on its 4 Day Week

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The 4 Day Week is big news right now, with professionals involved in the wellbeing agenda waiting with bated breath to know the inside track on the world’s biggest pilot scheme; this kicked off on 6 June in the UK and involved 70 companies.

But Atom Bank was even further ahead of the game, starting its pilot ahead of this global trial, which is why we’re so pleased to be welcoming Anne-Marie Lister, Chief People Officer there, to the stage at The Watercooler Event. She’ll be talking about the pilot and why the company is going full steam ahead with the new working pattern.

Before her much-anticipated session, we caught up with her to get the heads up on what she plans to cover…

Let’s go back to the beginning. Can you tell me how you came to trial the 4 Day Week?

During and after the pandemic, hybrid working has been seen to be ‘the answer’ for many organisations to keeping employees happy and engaged. But, actually, it has caused many challenges for people.

Our people, during the pandemic, were telling us ‘it’s tough, I’m not really enjoying life and work is not as fun as it used to be’. Or saying ‘it’s great, I’ve got more flexibility, but I’m also working longer and have less work life balance because I’m always on’.

In these times of uncertainty employee well-being was high on our agenda, but also ensuring Atom came through the pandemic as a bigger and stronger business. The increased working time our people were reporting wasn’t translating into increased productivity. We knew there had to be an answer that met both our business and people needs.

We wanted a model that would absolutely build a good, sustainable business for the future.

At that point, the Chief Executive and I started to talk about exploring a 4 Day Week for our 460 employees.

Click the video below to see Anne-Marie Lister talk in person about the 4 Day Week at Atom Bank:

What happened next in the process?

We looked at the research for 4 Day Weeks. When you read about studies that have happened, organisations have reported that health and wellbeing has increased, as has productivity and general engagement from their people.

How did you trial it initially?

Originally, I thought we would try with just a few departments, as it was such a big organisational change. We’re obviously regulated, and we provide a service to customers seven days a week, and that was never going to change. So my initial thinking was ‘let’s keep this contained’.

I approached each department head to think through how they might plan the operation of their department.

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We worked through the planning process: how would they resource it? What did they think the impact on people would be? How were people feeling about it? What would the customer impact be? How would they make sure the customer needs, internal and external, were completely met? And how would we continue to meet our regulatory and compliance requirements?

I asked each department to highlight any potential material risk.

When I got all the feedback, and looked across the piece, I realised they were extremely detailed plans, without any material risk highlighted.

Therefore, the business case I presented to the CEO, Executive team and Board was that the data had shown that we could trial it across the entire organisation and make it a success.

The culture we have created at Atom is one of innovation and having courage in creating change to make a difference. It was a brave decision still, as the first largest organisation in the UK to do so, but we knew in working closely we had the best chance of overcoming any challenges when we experienced them.

Was everyone jumping for joy when they found out you were trialling a 4 Day Week?

We thought they would be! But, actually, it was tough for some people. It was a big change to how people worked, and lived their lives outside of work. Some people reacted by saying ‘no, this isn’t going to work, this is too much, we can’t do it’.

There was probably more of a ‘selling in’ element than I expected when we did the initial announcement, helping people understand why we wanted to do this.

Who were the most reticent employees?

Everyone was supportive of the change and making it work but the biggest challenges I would say were from senior to middle management because they are  responsible for the output and outcomes of a department. I think their initial reservation was around whether it was going to create more pressure.

The planning process was key to this as it helped individuals think through exactly how their function would operate. Our senior team have become some of the biggest advocates for it and have benefitted personally, because they’ve seen improvements in their business areas, in terms of efficiencies as well as having highly engaged teams.

Largely, though, people were supportive and curious, asking questions like, ‘OK, how will this work?’

How did you announce the news?

We kicked off our trial in November 2021 and were very clear with our people. Transparency and honesty are key.

Through the planning, we stressed that we really wanted it to work but if it didn’t, we may need to go back to five days. The three non-negotiables were any customer detriment, any regulatory/ compliance detriment and also if it actually transpired that it didn’t work for our people.

We wanted to have that open dialogue so people would keep talking to us and let us know what was working and what wasn’t.

Can you tell me more about these efficiencies?

We’ve had a reduction in meetings across the organisation. The biggest thing for me is people are more aware of where they are bringing value to tasks and activities. Increasingly, they are self-selecting and focusing on tasks that have high value for the organisation and their own work and output.

At one point, virtual meetings during the pandemic were creeping up and up – but people are now asking themselves ‘hang on, am I working efficiently being in this meeting?’

They’ve become more autonomous, then, which is a pillar of good wellbeing?

Absolutely. When we announced that we were going to try it, somebody said to me ‘how are you going to plan all of these shift patterns?’

‘I’m not going to!’ I said.

In any organisation not one person has all of the answers. That’s often not what we’re led to believe, however. As a company, we’ve always hired people, being honest in that we want them to join to team as they have the answers to the many questions we have and those which will make our business better. And that’s exactly how we pitched the 4 Day Week: we didn’t have all the answers, we want our employees to be involved and to shape it, because that’s how it’s going to be successful. It’s about staff empowerment.

It’s not just about creating additional free time for people to contribute to their health and wellbeing, it’s about looking at where they can find efficiencies and, therefore, in itself create more interesting work.

People now have more time and feel better about what they’re doing, so they’re performing better in their roles. Our customer in turn have benefited; we are currently rated as one of the top 3 banks in the UK on Trustpilot.

Then after the trial, you decided to take the plunge?

We started the pilot in 2021 and it ran for six months, during which we were tracking over 170 metrics every month. These included standard people-related KPIs, sickness, engagement, etc. We also looked at customer metrics, goodwill, NPS and Trustpilot scores, as well as getting departments to report on productivity metrics.

Then we did a review in April 2022 with our executive committee and board, but I was already sure by this stage that it was working well and all of our business metrics trended positively.

Our decision to move to a 4 Day Week was supported by the board in September 2022. We then worked with our people in aligning our contractual terms ensuring that our business started 2023 as a fully fledged 4 Day Week organisation.

At the beginning of this interview you talked about courage and bravery. The image of HR sometimes is that it is too risk-averse. Do you think bravery, going forward, is something we should be looking to develop in HR?

I do. In HR and in business in general. I don’t think you can be innovative without being brave; we’ve built Atom, the UK’s first app-only fully regulated bank, from scratch. This wouldn’t have happened without innovation, bravery and persistence. This is exactly how we approached 4 Day Week. Often change is not easy, and it’s not simple.

Atom is an environment that believes in the ‘art of the possible’. We look at possibilities and talk about how we can make things work before we shoot anything down. This often isn’t the case in business, and HR, where all the reasons not to do something are those that lead the conversation. But businesses and people can benefit from so many other exciting, innovative practices if they are willing to ask: could this work for us?

If you are willing to ask the question ‘could a 4 Day Week work for us?’ then be sure not to miss Anne-Marie Lister speaking about her experiences in more depth at The Watercooler.

Click on the video above, or here, where Anne-Marie talks more about implementing the 4 Day Week at Atom Bank and why HR needs to be brave when carving out the future of work.

Come along to our sister event the Watercooler on April 25th and 26th, 2023The Watercooler, named in recognition of those crucial moments of connection between employees, is a free to attend conference and exhibition which demonstrates that wellbeing IS the future of work.

Taking place at Excel London, The Watercooler event is where you can gather to join ideas together, make connections, learn from peers’ experiences and find the right solutions for your organisation – whatever its size and shape.

For more on our coverage of the 4 Day Week see here and here.

For reasons why this is a must-attend event for anyone interested in workplace wellbeing, see this article here.

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4 Day Working Week: If you’re going to do it, don’t “cheat” it as a way to wellbeing

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