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Four day work week - will it work?

31 May 2021
Ian Grant

Is it just a fad that some politicians have found convenient to slap on a placard (or Facebook advert as is more likely the case these days), or is there some merit in a four-day-week?

The talk of a four-day week certainly got a shot in the arm as productivity levels endured despite many of us being forced to work from our dining room tables over the last year.

This newfound productivity reassured those who were fans of presenteeism that their team can produce the same results without sitting at the very next desk.

So now our national home working experiment has been seen to work, the debate about achieving similar productivity levels in a shorter working week has taken off.

But is it possible? And, actually, what is the debate?

  • Is it that a four-day working week will create better businesses?
  • Will it make our employees more effective?
  • Are our employees ineffective right now?
  • Won't there always be a business that works five days that will ultimately mean losing out as a business?

There is always a bigger fish

Do you think Ford lost out to its competitors in the 1920s when it dropped from seven days to five days?

I think you could argue that Ford has stood the test of time, and it was not the granting of a weekend to its hard-working production line staff in the early part of the last century that has impacted Ford's success over the years.

However, the fear for many is that if my team only works four days a week, won't the competition swoop in and gobble up all our customers?

The term a 4-day-week is a little misleading as it suggests the whole business picks a day and closes down for 24 hours. But in our 24/7 world, this was never going to be the case.  However, it doesn't stop some commentators from using this as part of their argument.  

The concept has moved on from everyone in your company taking Friday off or that you should close the office every Monday. That will almost certainly not suit your customers, and, now many have finally achieved a far better work/life balance, a restricted approach like this won't fit into your staff's schedule either.

The reality is, your business would still expect to cover everything that your current operation does, but in a far more effective way. 

Rewarding Poor Leadership 

Those agitating for four days suggest that Britain works longer hours than many other European nations, and it is not improving productivity. So is it possible that, as a nation, our businesses could produce the same output across four days as it does in five?

The argument against this is that it's just rewarding poor management. If those leading our businesses improved their systems and processes, perhaps our output would be even greater over five days.

It suggests the firms were badly managed if their operations were so sloppy that a few common-sense changes led to radical improvements in efficiency.

Marc Efforn, Talentquarterly.com

Many of the companies that have trialled the four-day working week have, for instance, found time savings in reducing 30-minute meeting to 15-minutes. One German company restricted social media engagement, small talk and the constant checking of phones.

But this doesn't seem to get to the heart of the problem. Why do employees need a break from their work? Why are they distracted, and why does their attention wander?

Is it that they don't get enough of a break to broaden their minds? Or is it that the way they are managed is not inspiring them to deliver?

The reality is probably a combination of both. There is a raft of studies that explain why employees might lose focus. Many of them, it could be argued, are the fears and insecurities that result from a lack of inclusion in leadership.

So, surely, if you could remedy this by reducing procrastination through better leadership, is it worthwhile even looking at it this?

Aren't we just as well improving our management to engage our teams?

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Looking at the whole picture

There is a counter-argument to the notion that the only way to make a reduced workweek successful is to cut meeting times and get your team off their phone.

The carrot, if you will.

Some suggest that improved productivity results from an increase in pressure to get the job done over a shorter period.

There are those, like Holgar Schafer, Labour Market Analyst at the German Economic Institute, who suggest that productivity actually comes from repetition,

"Employees perform a task more efficiently the more they've done it."

However, the productivity levels in countries where the average working week is 27hrs, such as Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands, is considerably higher.

Those, such as the team at 4-day-week.co.uk, suggest reducing the work burden on your team, giving them an extra day to refresh their batteries, to spend time with their children, to meet friends, and perhaps even take up a new hobby can lead to a happier workforce.

A study by Perpetual Guardians noted a reduction in employee stress from 45% to 38% following the introduction of a 4-day-week.

We know an improvement in mental health can reduce sick days and improve innovation, with research suggesting that happier employees can be up to 20% more productive, stats backed up by studies with Awin and IBM.

We also know there is an increase in staff retention when leadership take a more inclusive approach to leadership.

So if productivity remains broadly the same, and the employees are happier, more content, and likely to stay to contribute, the question then becomes, how do we find added value from this model for our customers and other stakeholders?

Growing, not standing still

There are some, like Marc Effron from TalentQ, who feel a 4-day-week who argues that the staff's self-proclaimed improvement in engagement from a 20% reduction in their workweek only serves to maintain the current output level; it provides no additional benefit to the customer, supplier or stakeholders.

However, if your business can achieve the same output level in four days instead of five, there is undoubtedly a cost-benefit to be enjoyed. Even though you're still covering the hours required by your customers, there is likely a reduction in a range of costs, including, among others, reduced energy costs and a decrease in the depreciation of equipment.

There is also likely to be a reduction in the costs involved in a high staff turnover;

  • Loss of earnings while a replacement is found
  • advertising and promotion to attract new candidates (while competing with more appealing options in the market who offer 4-day-weeks
  • Cost of ongoing training of new hires

As with any business, a reduction in costs will positively impact the bottom line, something I am sure shareholders will be pleased to hear. The lower cost base would suggest that hiring more staff to grow your business will yield a higher return, offsetting the reduction in hours.

The additional benefit in terms of the environment, and helping to meet global demand to reduce business' impact on climate, start to make this an even more compelling argument. 4dayweek.co.uk suggest there could be a 24% reduction in carbon emissions from electricity production with the introduction of a 4-day-week.

Can four days really work?

The above is a slightly oversimplified scenario, but the premise is not wrong.

Viewing a 20% reduction in hours in insolation could easily be seen as a drop in output. However, if production remains the same and costs can reduce, and there are broader benefits to the environment and staff welfare, then as a concept, it indeed starts to present some tangible benefits.

There are some industries where four day weeks aren't practical yet. When trialled with Nurses in Sweden, it became a tricky balance. However, that seemed to be more about a lack of nurses than an issue with the 4-day work plan.

The reality is, this concept is coming down the track and it is providing quite vigorous debate. It is going to take a national trial, like the one Spain have been looking into to get more robust data on the concept, but it is something that businesses should begin to take seriously.

What do you think? Share your thoughts on our social channels and start the debate.

Author

Ian Grant
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