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The four-day week – would it work for your business? You might be surprised by the answer

Kate Allen, Managing Director, Allen Associates

With the last bank holiday of the year shrinking in our tail lights, the long stretch of standard working hours begins. Lamenting the passing of short weeks and long lie-ins, we contemplate what life would be like if we worked less.

Naturally for most Employees, words like ‘better’, ‘brilliant’ and ‘blissful’ are the first few to come to mind. After all, if Friday nights are spent trying to unwind from a busy week and Sunday evenings are completely consumed by the countdown ‘til Monday morning, we barely have any time to recharge our batteries.

For years, the concept of a four-day work-week has been a pipe dream for busy professionals.

That is, until a New Zealand firm decided to make it a reality.

Perpetual Guardian, a company specialising in trusts, wills and estate planning, ran a six-week trial earlier in the year that allowed all Employees to work for just four days a week while getting paid for five.

Boosting Employee engagement

For fellow Employers, the concept understandably raised concern as to how much the productivity and output of the business would suffer from a shorter schedule. Already, the market is heating up and competition is growing fiercer by the day: with only four days to achieve what competitors do in five, most Employers have been reluctant to throw eight valuable working hours into the weekend.

However, according to Perpetual Guardian’s chief executive Andrew Barnes, trialling the four-day week was “the right thing to do”.

If findings from their results are anything to go by, Barnes was not wrong. Academics who studied the trial before, during and after its implementation found that it had been an unmitigated success, with staff stress-levels falling 7% post-trial and work-life balance satisfaction up 24%. In November 2017, just over half (54%) of staff felt they could effectively balance their work and home commitments, while after the trial this figure jumped to 78%.

With Employees getting more time to themselves to relax, unwind and prepare for the week ahead, the studies revealed that workers were more engaged in the workplace during the trial than ever before. With increased engagement came a surge in productivity as each Employee worked to make each day matter.

The question is, does the success of this trial dictate the new best practice, and could the four-day week really work for your business?

Solving the productivity puzzle

As it stands, the average Briton works an average of 37.0 hours a week: that’s an hour-and-a-half difference from the 38.4 hours we worked 20 years ago. However, what these figures don’t take into account is the unpaid overtime we squeeze into our evenings and weekends. While technology was supposed to improve our work-life balance, it seems it’s only aided in keeping us switched on 24/7, with findings from the Trades Union Congress suggesting we work an extra 7.4 unpaid hours on average per person every week.

Surely, cramming this all in to a four-day week will only see staff working additional hours every night in an attempt to keep up with a demanding workload?

According to Dr Mark Batey, a senior lecturer in organisational psychology at Alliance Manchester Business School, there is no "one-size-fits-all" approach to a four-day week, and what works for office-based Employees could not translate effectively to shopkeepers and factory workers. Nevertheless, the success of the trial did shine a light on the effect that a poor work-life balance has on Employee productivity:

“While companies making staff work five days a week might feel like they are getting the most out of them, actually they often end up just tired and overworked, and consequently less productive", he said.

These sentiments are confirmed by research from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which found a lack of correlation between longer working hours and higher levels of productivity. Despite the fact that Britons work significantly longer hours on average than their French and German counterparts, we still lag behind our European competitors in output. To put it bluntly, it takes British workers five days to produce what others achieve in four.

Uncovering the truth

While the idea of a 3-day weekend is hard to refute in regard to Employee engagement, the simple truth is that companies who encourage a healthy work-life balance should not have to introduce four-day weeks. If time is being managed correctly, workers should leave each day on time. In a perfect world, two days would suffice in providing time to unwind and refresh for the following Monday, but it’s clear that most companies just aren’t there yet.

With only a matter of months to go until our EU exit, it’s unlikely the four-day week will take-over the UK just yet. However, if we are to get the most out of the workforce, we must recognise that more time does not necessarily mean more work. Perpetual Guardian may not have caused a domino effect, but they have certainly helped to highlight where we are going wrong.

Over the last 20 years, we have grown as a business to become one of the leading independent Recruitment agencies in Oxfordshire, and in 2018 have opened our first London office, to service Clients in the capital.

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