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Four-day-week winter trial for ecologists

ecology work trial

It’s no secret that managing a work-life balance as an ecologist is tough. Jo Pedder (Director of Prime Environment Ltd.) is currently trialling a four-day-week in order to address this… 

I wanted to share this, as I think that working conditions for ecologists is a real issue – I hear reports of car accidents after bat surveys, instances of mental health problems and people who have left the industry because of the working conditions, and I genuinely find the way that some ecologists (especially junior ecologists) that are being over worked in other consultancies, abhorrent and dangerous. I’m all for making a profit, finding efficiencies by doubling up surveys and delivering the goods for our clients, but there shouldn’t be a human impact to that.

The problem
Ecologists work hard in spring and summer; they work long hours with odd shifts, late nights, have early starts and have tight deadlines. This work and dedication should be appropriately rewarded.

Hayley Farnell (Senior Ecologist) and I have discussed how to process TOIL (time off in lieu) or overtime, avoid summer burn-out, and what to do about the ever-elusive winter downtime that never seems to really appear.

We know that time sheets are not always 100% accurate, and can be a poor way to track or monitor work over contracted hours (so called ‘hidden overtime’). To date we have had a loose system of self-regulated time off in lieu, where employees are expected to manage their workload so that they do not accrue overtime (i.e. come in late after an evening survey or leave early on Friday after a busy week), but we don’t think that this really covers the hard work that ecologists do over the summer months, nor does it necessarily account for shortened lunch breaks, staying in those extra few half hours a week to get reports out (etc.) that can creep in and create unaccounted overtime (i.e. time that doesn’t show up on a time sheet). Not to mention how difficult it is to maintain a work life balance when out doing bat surveys, newt surveys (etc.), finding time to see your friends and family and ease off a little to enjoy the summer.

The solution
Starting now, we are trialling the following system:

  • Staff are encouraged to take holiday leave in summer (as they always have done).
  • Working hours are self-regulated to avoid burning out, stress or other conditions.
  • Overtime or TOIL is not accrued.
  • All ecology staff are rewarded with a four-day-week in November, December, January and February.
  • The winter four-day-week will mean taking Friday off each week (paid in full, with full benefits).

We also need to remain aware that we are a commercial enterprise, and that we need to continue to complete work for clients and turn a profit. I have an expectation that a four-day-week is a focused one! This is borne out by research. Perpetual Guardian (a New Zealand trust / wills firm) trialled a four-day work week and they also employed researchers to quantitatively assess the results. They found that

“Employees reported a 24 percent improvement in work-life balance, and came back to work energised after their days off,” and that it “motivated them to find ways of increasing their productivity while in the office.”

We are already working on our ways of increasing productivity, from our quote to invoice and everything in between – project management software, flexible home working and smart report templates – but I’m sure there is much more that we can do on this. Hopefully this winter will help us focus on making further gains in efficiency. After all, the value of the company is its output, not the number of hours taken to get there.

An additional benefit of the four-day-week is that this will have an environmental impact – fewer miles driven to the office, lights off for longer and we can set the office heater program to low on three days in seven rather than two in seven.

About the Author: Jo Pedder (B.Sc. hons MCIEEM) is Director of Prime Environment Ltd. He is an ecologist with over 15 years experience in the environmental consulting sector. Jo holds survey and development licences for bats and great crested newts. Jo oversees many of Prime’s projects from barn conversions to sites over 300 ha and has a range of experience in the minerals, housing and energy sectors.