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Four-day week: is it time to make the change?

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 14 Mar 2022

“The initial reaction was, ‘Woohoo!’ – followed by ‘how are we going to do that?’” A four-day week sounds like a dream come true when it comes to work-life balance. But can it work?

Lockdown may have led to a massive shift to working from home, but the traditional five-day week remains entrenched. However, this may be set to shift. Companies across the globe have trialled four-day working weeks, many with positive results, and now, in the UK, USA, Ireland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, a six-month pilot scheme is under way. 

The principle is the 100:80:100 model – 100% pay for 80% of the time, but with 100% (at least) of the productivity. Organised by 4 Day Week Global in partnership with think tank Autonomy, the 4 Day Week Campaign in the UK and researchers at Cambridge University, Oxford University and Boston College in the USA, participating businesses are currently in preparation mode, with the new working pattern due to start in June and run for six months. 

One of the companies signed up to the trial is MBL Seminars, one of the UK’s leading professional development training providers. Angela Watson, Managing Director, says: “Our Chair, Morgan Rigby, had been interested in the four-day week as an innovative business concept and general well-being for staff. The idea was put on hold through the lockdowns, but it came back on our corporate agenda recently, and he contacted Autonomy, the think tank in New Zealand that’s one of the groups behind this pilot, and from there with an academic at Boston College, in the US.

Sarah Maundrell, MBL’s Operations Director, adds: “The latest impetus has been driven by the fact that the business is going through a period of transformational change. For us to continue growing and developing, we need our teams to be able to innovate and adapt; people need to be match fit.”

So, how can reduced hours be good for business? Improved well-being and a better work-life balance are obvious upsides for staff, but for managers this can play out as reduced absenteeism, improved productivity, better staff retention and improved ability to attract staff. A 2019 study by the UK’s Henley Business School found that the 250 participating firms providing a four-day working week saved an estimated £92bn a year because their employees were happier, less stressed and took fewer sick days. And almost two-thirds (63%) of employers said that providing a four-day working week has helped them to attract and retain talent. 

MBL is hoping this latter effect will be realised. As Maundrell says: “Like most companies, we are grappling with the talent market. We’re hoping that becoming a four-day week company will be attractive to potential employees and give us a better opportunity to recruit the people we need.”

The need to be ‘available’ across a five-day week is a challenge for any business with a significant number of part-time staff. For Jessica Pillow, Director of Pillow May Accountancy and a member of ICAEW’s Tech Board, part of this is down to managing client expectations. “You’ve obviously got to deliver a level of service, but there is a certain amount of client education you can do. For example, our clients know that on Mondays there are lots of team meetings – it’s the one day when all of the team is in the office – and we’ve always had Friday as a shorter day, so those aren’t the best days to contact us. It’s historic, and our clients have got used to it. Generally they know Tuesday to Thursday are the really productive days. Monday and Friday are when we work on the business. Of course, if something hyper urgent comes up, my team will jump on it and sort it.”

Busy periods may also present issues where staff are not working a five-day week. Pillow’s solution is fluid task allocation, ensuring that systems are set up so that it’s not difficult to reallocate tasks. “At the moment we’re doing a massive systems install, so my PA is incredibly busy,” she says. “So we’re trying to push some of her other work on to the personal tax people who aren’t very busy at the moment.”

The other logistical challenge is the HR perspective, as Watson says: “We have a lot of part-time workers. While for full-time staff, the four-day week makes a lot of sense, for part-time working, we need to work out how we ensure those employees are getting the same benefits.” 

News of the new working pattern has been generally well received at MBL. “A lot of our employees were already up to speed with the concept as there has been a lot of recent press coverage,” says Maundrell. “Obviously the initial reaction was, ‘Woohoo!’ – followed by ‘how are we going to do that?’

“Four-day week aside, we are going through a period of significant transformation and the reward of a four-day week has changed people’s mindsets in terms of how they approach things operationally. It’s certainly focused the mind in terms of how we can become more efficient, so that’s definitely a benefit.”

But how do you measure the success of such an experiment? Says Maundrell: “It was recognised very early that we would need to improve how we measure ourselves. We have some team KPIs that we work to but some areas are more advanced in the metrics that they have available than others. As a bare minimum, our productivity must remain constant, but we hope that it would improve if all the research is proven.”

Anna Diski, spokesperson for the UK 4 Day Week Campaign, says: “We’ll be trying to get the metrics to be relevant, and to define what success might look like for each organisation. Those metrics will be monitored throughout the trial, and each organisation involved will have an impact assessment produced for them. There will also be a published report, collecting the data for the whole trial.” 

Find out more

The deadline for signing up to the trial is 31 March – so far about 10 UK companies have already signed up, with a final target of 50. So who’s joining? Says Diski: “We’ve had a wide range of sectors and industries register their interest, and the trial is very much open to everyone. One of the most common misconceptions is that there are certain industries where it just won’t work. We’re trying to show that that’s not the case. It’s definitely possible across the board.”

Find out more at 4 Day Week Campaign.

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