Building on successful moves to homeworking over the past year, there is now growing interest in a four-day working week, with 79% of business leaders open to the idea.
The four-day working week has been trialled by many companies during the pandemic. In November, Unilever announced that it would move staff in its New Zealand office to a four-day week on the same pay. It follows a similar trial by Microsoft in its Japanese operations, and the UK supermarket chain Morrisons said in the summer that it would be moving to a four-day week at its Bradford headquarters.
But despite studies showing that workers are more motivated and productive on reduced hours, there remains a healthy amount of scepticism among many managers. So, what are the issues and what do the experts say?
Myth 1: The four-day week means staff have to cram five days’ work into four
Alex Pang, author of Shorter: How working less will revolutionise the way your company gets things done (shortlisted for the 2021 CMI Management Book of the Year award): “The productivity improvements that we need in order to make a four-day week work already exist, it’s just that they are buried under this rubble of poor management and outmoded processes, and a culture that values time in the office over focus and attention. The average worker loses between two and four productive hours every day due to overly long meetings, technology-driven distractions, and interruptions by colleagues.
“One change that needs to happen is to introduce periods of ‘deep work’, periods of the day blocked out for intensive, focused work on your most important tasks. Managers also need to shift from valuing employees who can be in the office all the time, to respecting people who can work super effectively but then stop and leave on time. That's someone who knows their work, respects their time, is going to respect other people's time, and is going to do better work.”
Myth 2: The four-day week is too radical, with no guarantees that it will be a success
Joe Ryle, campaign officer for the 4 Day Week Campaign: “The most important thing is to get worker buy-in very early on. You can do that with staff surveys before, during and after the change to ensure that any kind of teething problems that crop up along the way can be fixed. The idea is that it’s a net benefit to companies and employees, so it needs to be done fairly, and it needs to be done with transparency and consultation.”
Alex Pang: “Run a six-month trial. The idea is that you explicitly have this period where people can experiment and are free to change up everything. It might be a little bit uncomfortable at first, but give people permission to try out new ways of working while also having an end point. This is where, number one, the uncertainty is going to come to an end and number two, you’re going to make a decision about whether your company can really do this and adopt it permanently.”
Myth 3: The four-day week will mean paying staff less
Joe Ryle: “With all the evidence showing that you can achieve the same level of productivity in a shorter time, it doesn’t mean you should pay staff less. It would be detrimental to staff morale. The right work/life balance is a four-day 32-hour week with no reduction in pay. This is about improving working conditions. If you look at the introduction of the weekend and the eight-hour day which came in during the 1940s, that was on the same basis.
“Showing employees that respect will not only help you retain staff, it can also attract fresh talent to the company. Businesses are always looking for ways to boast about being a good employer. Previously, we’ve seen companies offering the living wage to show that they are an attractive place to work – now it’s the four-day week which companies are using to show off.”
Myth 4: Staff will be less available to clients in a four-day week, and clients won’t like it
Adam Ross, CEO of global marketing firm Awin: “We began a six-month trial of a four-day week on 1 January 2021, after experimenting with half-day Fridays to give employees more time with family in the wake of the first lockdown.
“We work with more than 16,000 clients. We measure client satisfaction scores, and people are tasked with making sure those scores remain high. It means employees have to think about how they organise themselves in order to maintain the same service. For example, people in client-facing roles can’t all take Friday off. We have also built centralised admin pools of staff that can handle client queries five days a week. As long as you carefully measure the outcomes, people will keep up the same standard.
“We absolutely had to communicate this change before it happened. We wrote and spoke to all our clients, explaining how it was going to work, how we were going to maintain the service, how we were absolutely committed to them still, that we fundamentally believed that this was the future of work and that it would benefit them in the end because people were going to be much more engaged and full of energy on the days that they did work.
“Some of our clients have company cultures that clash with the change we have made, but others don’t. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, and a lot of our clients have asked us to talk to their bosses about trying it themselves.”
Myth 5: But we’re different… We need to work a full week
Alex Pang: “Factories, restaurants, nursing homes and all kinds of companies from a variety of sectors are doing this. It's definitely not just creatives and knowledge workers who work on big projects with long deadlines.
“What companies have to think about is whether they already have a day of the week that is naturally slow. That could be the day of the week you lose. Essentially, it’s a question of balancing the rhythms of your business needs with the preferences of your own employees. And don’t forget, there are plenty of places doing four-day weeks where the owners have to stay open five days a week. In which case, you can work out schedules where different employees take different days off. So, for example, you could be staffed at 80% the entire week. Then, individuals get the benefit of a four-day week, but clients never notice that anything has changed.
“Another model is the shift system, where workers might go down to six-hour days, but the office itself runs over 12 hours. The advantage of this option is that by lengthening hours, by lengthening availability of service, you’re able to serve more people.”
This article was originally published in the spring 2021 edition of CMI’s magazine (available to CMI members here).
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