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Is a four-day work week the future for businesses?

Strategy, Legal & Operations

Is a four-day work week the future for businesses?

The concept of working a four-day week for the same pay is gaining momentum.

While the idea was kicked around prior to the pandemic, Covid has given it added impetus.

What the pandemic showed us is that we can dramatically change the way we work, with remote working, for example, becoming a commonplace work practice in a very short time.

The way we view work has also changed, with work-life balance now more in the spotlight.

But what could a four-day week look like, what are the pros and cons, and what steps would you, as an employer, need to consider to roll it out?

We discuss those points and more in this article.

Here’s what we cover:

In response to the growing clamour for a shorter working week, an Irish Four Day Week organisation was set up, and is part of a global campaign run by a group of organisations including trade unions, businesses, environmentalists, civil society organisations, academics and health practitioners.

And the Irish branch, in conjunction with its UK, New Zealand and American counterparts, is currently running a six-month pilot to test the feasibility of a four-day week, with participating companies receiving support, training, and mentoring on how to make the four-day week work.

At least 17 companies are involved in the pilot, including Soothing Solutions, a Louth-based bioceuticals manufacturing company and Yala, a Dublin-based recruitment company.

The government will also fund research to assess the economic, social, and environmental impacts of the programme.

A quote from the website explains the thinking: “We want to change the false narrative that working long hours is good for productivity and a badge of honour, challenge the worst excesses of the ‘work-first, always-on’ culture, and champion the importance of family time, leisure time, caring work and community work.”

A similar experiment happened before in terms of shortening the working week.

Less than 100 years ago, in 1926, the Ford Motor Company introduced the Monday-to-Friday working week, changing it from the previous six-day week, with only Sunday off.

And when the idea was mooted originally, many parties were aghast.

Of course, today is a very different working environment to that of 1926. And one factor that could enable a shorter working week is the advance in technology.

The likes of artificial intelligence (AI), automation and robotics are set to improve productivity.

In addition, the recent shift to remote working due to the pandemic forced companies to quickly design better performance metrics to measure what employees are doing.

These new metrics could be a useful tool in managing a shorter working week.

The four-day working week is touted as giving a better work-life balance and improved wellbeing, with productivity being maintained or even increased.

While there may not be many employees that would turn down the option of working less for the same money, it might be harder to convince an employer.

One company that has already adopted this model is recruitment and training company, I.C.E Group.

It initiated a four-day working week during the summer of 2019. Its director, former senator Margaret Cox, explained the thinking behind such a huge change:

“We were working on our four-year plan for 2020 to 2024 and our key vision was we wanted to be a world-class organisation that inspired other organisations.

“And we realised to do that, as an organisation, we needed to do something big.

“We had been looking at how we change the lives of our clients, the people who use our services in training and recruitment, and we decided that we wanted to also do something for our people.

“People is what our business is all about.

“We wanted to improve retention, we wanted to reduce absenteeism and we wanted to attract better and more exciting talent to our organisation.

“We had started to watch the thought process that was emerging around the five-day working week and was it fit for purpose.

“Could it be improved upon and was the time now here to move into the four-day week space?

“It was that idealism, if you like, that prompted us to think about it for the I.C.E Group.”

Nearly three years on and Margaret is very happy with the decision. The new model has delivered in terms of increased productivity, increased profitability and increased employee wellbeing.

She says: “We believe that the three-day weekend, and working around that, gives us the energy, the focus and the happiness to make sure that we continue to deliver results.”

However, Margaret advises that such a transformational decision can’t be decided upon on a Friday and delivered on the following Monday.

It takes planning, understanding the business and involving everyone from the bottom up to find ways to work more efficiently and win back some time.

On a practical basis, one of the key changes I.C.E. made was in terms of meetings.

Margaret says: “We have a very clear set of standards for meetings. Most meetings take only 30 minutes, or less. We also have daily huddles in parts of the business that take 15 minutes, or less.

“When we do have a 30-minute meeting, there is a very clear agenda and there is a very clear expectation.

“You come in prepared, you come in on time, you contribute enthusiastically and energetically to the meeting, you take your own minutes, and then you go and implement the actions.

“We’ve cut out any non-important meetings. We don’t have meetings for the sake of it, there has to be a reason.

“And that has allowed us to pull back time into everybody’s day.

“It was the one single thing that had the biggest impact in terms of saving time.”

Something, she says, that all companies can do.

However, a number of employers are yet to be convinced.

One such person is Peter Cosgrove, managing director of insights company Futurewise, and formerly a managing director of CPL recruitment company.

As he sees it, the four-day work week could bring positives for some, but there might also be negative consequences.

For instance, he questions whether squeezing five days of work into four could put too much pressure on employees and in fact have a negative impact on wellbeing.

He also has concerns that it could create a two-tier workforce, something he feels is already happening with remote working.

Peter says: “We already have issues with ‘distance bias’, where people who are not in the office and work remotely have less chance of getting promoted as they get overlooked or forgotten.

“In terms of the four-day week, will there be a difference if employees do not choose to work a four-day week?”

All the same, Peter agrees that the world of work is changing.

He says: “New work models are already coming in with huge flexibility post-Covid-19. But what we should not be doing is putting rules and structures around it.

“Hybrid working is here to stay, so things like four-day working models can be created for individuals if they want.

“In fact, the model has been around forever. It’s just called part-time working or flexible working. But I don’t think everyone wants such a structure.”

  • Determine if the model could work for your business (review what your business does and whether there’s capacity to drop down to four days; does it mean having an extra hour for Monday to Thursday to compensate, for example?).
  • Get input from your employees (what are their thoughts, will four days work for their workload, where do they think time can be saved).
  • Review your payroll processes (use of timesheets, salaries being paid correctly).
  • Speak to an HR expert (and get legal support) regarding employee contracts (contracts may need to be updated).
  • Give a four-day working week a trial run (either in one department or across the company, and get feedback from managers and employees).
  • Put a system in place to measure the efficacy of a shorter working week in terms of benefits such as reduced sick leave, increased staff retention, improved wellbeing.
  • Analyse your employees’ key performance indicators. Could they be achievable in four days per week rather than five?
  • Consider staggering when employees take their day off, so there’s always staff at work each day.
  • Make a conscious effort to reduce the length of meetings and to focus on time management in general.
  • Decide on a policy for employees who are already working on a part-time basis.
  • Work smarter by using technologies such as cloud-based software to be more efficient and to save time.

In reality, a four-day working week, with a five-day pay scale, is a long way away from entering the mainstream. But it is a concept that is gaining traction.

As Margaret points out, it’s counter-intuitive that less is in fact more.

But for her company, it has worked. And it might for your business too.

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