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Can we do in four what we used to do in five?

Could you deliver the same or more in four days a week instead of five? Some openly see it as an 'idler's charter', whereas for others it's an innovative part of working 'smarter not harder'. To shed more light on this lively debate, Dr Mark Pegg looks at the experience of those who have actually tried it.

A powerful source is the recent report on the UK element of a global four-day week trial*. Participating organisations agreed to aim for at least the same or ideally better productivity and outcomes on the basis of '100% of the pay for 80% of the days'. The trial took place between June and December 2022 across the UK with organisations as varied as a brewery, a fish and chip shop, citizens advice bureau, hi-tech engineers, a bank, software developers, and recruitment firms taking part. Some 2,900 employees across the UK participated and at the end of the trial, 56 of the 61 participating organisations said they would continue with a four-day week and 18 of them said it was a permanent change.

Almost all firms reported satisfaction with productivity and business performance levels during the trial. This was no 'one-size fits all' scheme: a range of four-day weeks was adopted, ranging from a classic 'Friday off' to 'staggered', 'decentralised', 'annualised', and 'conditional' systems customised to deliver efficiently and effectively for their business in a 24/7 world.

The trial was supported by the consultancy firm Autonomy and academics at Cambridge, University College Dublin, and Boston College. Surveys of staff taken before and after found that 39% said they were less stressed, had fewer symptoms of burnout, 40% were sleeping better and 54% said it was easier to balance work and home responsibilities. The number of sick days taken during the trial fell by about 66% and staff turnover was well down with 57% fewer leaving compared with the same period a year earlier.

Follow-up interviews produced lots of personal success stories with better family care and travel arrangements. Time and again staff mentioned they had a more positive attitude towards their work. This included better service delivery quality and in many cases, staff said they thought so much harder about what they did in their working day – typically they described more effective use of meeting times, better time management in getting things done and squeezing non-productive time out of business processes.

You could still be sceptical, seeing a self-selected group more likely to enter the trial and therefore unsurprisingly wanting to continue afterwards. Alternatively, this could be just the inspiration you need to think differently and launch a similar initiative where you work. My takeaway from the trial is four quick points to consider:

  1. The current five-day week model is not exactly a shining beacon of success in the UK which has a record of poor labour productivity. We lag behind other leading economies, with UK staff working longer working hours to produce significantly less. Simply doubling down on the same way of working is self-evidently failing to deliver results in many workplaces.
  2. The disruption of Covid lockdown working has impacted massively on most organisations, often creating an enforced step change in working practices AND the mindset of staff. This is still fertile territory providing a wonderful one-off opportunity to find different ways to deliver your services more productively with enduring benefits.
  3. The report lays down lots of useful markers. Why not launch a feasibility study? No commitment needed, what have you got to lose? What would success look like, what would need to change? It's not a bad project with which to task an internal working party. Why not ask a team to review and work up some scenarios – is it feasible, what are the risks, any barriers, and what would the benefits be? Could you pilot this? Could you move part time workers to this system? Set some stretching key success factors? In a time of staff shortages, could your absence and turnover figures be lower?
  4. Finally, a little bit of imagineering might come in handy too. Ask your project team to brainstorm what this new world would look and feel like to work in. Will this give you a stronger culture, one that attracts the skilled staff you need and creates a more inspiring work environment, a place where people produce more every day, every week to deliver your growth strategy?

Author: Dr Mark Pegg, Director, Chalfont Associates

*The Results are in: The UK's 4 Day Week Pilot – 4 Day Week Global/Autonomy February 2023

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