Four-day working weeks are a hot topic right now. In May, U.K. trade union body the TUC called for a shorter week, and now it’s on the Labour Party’s agenda.
At the annual party conference in Brighton this week, shadow chancellor John McDonnell proposed moving British workers to a 32-hour week–equivalent to four days–with no loss of pay. The change would happen within the next decade under a Labour Government, he said.
Given this will depend on companies successfully automating processes and improving worker productivity, are British business owners ready and willing? Here’s what they think.
Amy Finlay, co-founder of Edinburgh IFA, describes the prospect of four-day weeks as “wishful thinking” and not grounded in the real world. She says: “If anything, we need more days to be able to get everything done, and more hours in those days! We have a very small team at the moment, where everyone has very important roles to keep the business running smoothly. That means if one or more of our team were to be removed from their role for effectively a full working day, the system would no longer function.”
Ryan Arrindell, creative director at digital marketing agency Animate Designs, says that although a 32-hour week sounds like “a step toward a more healthy, well-rounded society”, U.K. small businesses will find it much more difficult to cope with the simultaneous expectation for longer opening hours and shorter working hours, compared to big businesses that could easily hire more staff to cover new shifts. He also thinks offering shorter working weeks doesn’t chime with the cultural shift towards “always available, on-demand, connected products and services”.
But Karim Laljee, director of social media agency Soc-Med, which lets its staff work flexibly, thinks three full days plus two half days Monday through Friday would reflect the times of the week when people seem to be naturally less productive.
He reasons: “If we are being honest with ourselves, Friday afternoons can be very unproductive and we end up just being there, unless there is a major project going on. Also, during the week people often book afternoons off or have late starts while still producing good work and meeting deadlines.”
Nicholas Brady-Smith, CEO of comparison site CompareNewTyres–suspecting his company had a problem with presenteeism–conducted a month-long experiment, dropping staff working hours from 40 to 35 hours per week. Staff weren’t told the real reason why.
He recalls: “Although it took a couple of months for the results to come through, we were astounded that what we produced in that one month was near enough identical to months when staff had worked 40-hour weeks. I think, like many business owners, I fell into the trap of thinking the more hours we work, the more work we get done. I thought it would boost our sales, profits and productivity.
“Although our experiment was not scientific by any means, it does suggest that if we were to reduce our operations to four days per week, we might be able to achieve the same results whilst allowing our staff to benefit from the same salary. If people can spend more time doing what they want and what interests them, that can increase the odds they will stay with your company.”
However, Brady-Smith recognises that some businesses, including shops and the service industry, cannot be expected to offer four-day weeks.
This is echoed by international leadership expert Janine Woodcock who fears that a government-driven mandatory four day work week in the free market could render the UK non-competitive and reduce productivity with “real consequences” to the economy. She also thinks it could promote a culture of “leaveism” among the most ambitious employees.
Woodcock explains: “Many businesses only survive as a result of employees offering ‘discretionary effort’. Ambitious employees recognise that going above and beyond their remit is core to their perceived value. An officially reduced working week may have little real world impact on these valuable employees who are committed to their organisation’s success. They will find ways, such as leaveism–using flexitime and annual leave to complete work outside of hours–to maintain their performance levels for the good of the business, reducing an official policy of fewer hours to a toothless tiger.”