Four-day working week could ‘improve productivity’

04 February 2022 4 min. read
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Modern working practices have already changed drastically over the course of the pandemic – and further shifts look increasingly likely. Firms should look before they leap when it comes to implementing a four-day week, however, as shifting to the model without adapting expectations of staff may actually end up placing them under more pressure.

In the pre-pandemic years, the idea of regular remote work for many employees was a distant dream. While mounting evidence suggested that flexible working practices such as non-office days could boost work-life balance, employee satisfaction – and therefore also productivity – many employers were resistant to the practice, concerned that unobserved workers would simply use the opportunity to slack off.

The lockdown months provided a huge challenge to these preconceptions, as while working remotely did not come without its own challenges, most workers did value the flexibility it gave them – and productivity did largely improve as a result. Due to this, working life has not simply returned to ‘business as usual’ with the rolling back of lockdown restrictions, and many employers are even deploying flexibility as a means to courting new staff amid a competitive talent market.

Four-day working week could ‘improve productivity’

According to Richard Jeffery, CEO and Founder of ActiveOps – a professional services firm specialising in operational management – the positive impacts flexible working measures are having are too great to ignore at this point. Indeed, organisations that create a better environment for their team members’ wellbeing often see additional business benefits beyond productivity, such as a high retention rate, which lowers recruitment costs.

Jeffery continued, “The World Health Organisation has found poor health reduces national GDP by 15%, almost twice the 8% hit to GDP that the pandemic itself has had. Thereby, it’s no secret that investing in your employees’ health and wellbeing can reduce sickness rates, improve work motivation and encourage a better sense of team morale. Thus, employee wellbeing is the key to management success.” 

Trials begin

As employers look for new ways to adapt their flexible working offering, a growing number are confronting calls for a four-day working week. Like regular remote working, this seemed unthinkable for many companies pre-pandemic, but in the rapidly changing labour market of 2022, the idea has found fresh support.

For example, three firms recently made news by becoming the latest businesses to join a four-day working week trial, being run by academics at the universities of Cambridge and Oxford, plus Boston College in the US and thinktank Autonomy. It is being overseen by 4 Day Week Global, a campaign group. As reported in the Guardian, Yo Telecom’s 90 employees are set to move from a 40-hour working week to a four-day, 32-hour working week with no reduction in pay, for six months starting in June. They will be accompanied by game developer Hutch, with 120 employees, and MBL Seminars, with 70 employees.

In this nascent stage, however, Jeffery has cautioned firms against rushing into a four-day offering without doing similar exploratory work. While spending more time away from the workplace can help employees avoid burnout – and make the time they do spend at work will be more fulfilling – if they are expected to commit to the same output levels over a shorter time span, a four-day week could actually have the opposite impact. 

Jeffery noted, “Businesses should be aware that a four-day working week can only improve productivity if appropriately managed. Business leaders must focus on the wellbeing of teams through real-time performance measurement... It is essential to consider profound consequences when a business doesn’t have insight into the data required for the managers to make fast and accurate decisions over scheduling and workforce levels across departments. Shortages of resources, limited capacity, and backlogs of work yet to be processed inevitably affect the customer experience on the outside and decrease employee morale on the inside.”

At the same time, the data will need capable individuals to interpret and put it to work. On this basis, employers cannot afford to ignore the fact there will be a growing need to reskill managers to support the four-day working week. Businesses deploying a four-day week must therefore invest in training for managers, as well as workforce intelligence, so that when intelligence uncovers opportunities for managers to simplify running operations, they will be able to take control and increase productivity.

Concluding, Jeffery said, “Due to the ongoing effects of the pandemic, it is no wonder that many countries are piloting ways of improving productivity… Wellbeing is here to stay as a management demand, and that can only be a good thing for employers and employees alike.”