The case for the four-day workweek

BL Magazine, January 2019. Original article p54-57.

Sharing the spoils: The case for the four-day workweek

Automation leads to improved efficiency – but who benefits? Until now, the spoils of technological advancement has gone straight to the business bottom line, as staff keep working the same hours no matter how much time is “saved” by technology.

We were supposed to be working 15 hours a week by now, predicted the economist John Maynard Keynes – in 1930 he anticipated that technological advancements in “progressive countries” would mean we’d be enjoying more leisure. But it hasn’t happen, even as data is now automatically input, documents effortlessly shared across devices, reports instantly assembled, and hardware spontaneously alerts us when it needs attention. In spite of warnings that automation will put people out work, Britons put in some of the longest hours in Europe – we rack up £32 billion worth of unpaid overtime, according to a Trades Union Congress (TUC) survey from September.

And people resent working so much. 81% want to work less, the TUC found, and out of those, about half would love to have a four-day workweek. The TUC has thrown its weight behind this idea, calling it a way to ensure productivity gains are distributed fairly. “Bosses and shareholders must not be allowed to hoover up all the gains from new tech for themselves. Working people deserve their fair share,” TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said in a statement. “If productivity gains from new technology are even half as good as promised, then the country can afford to make working lives better.”

But working four days per week – while being paid the same as before – would it actually work?

screen shot 2019-01-10 at 15.43.41Initial reports suggest a four-day week may lead to improved productivity, even with fewer hours in the office. When researchers at Auckland University of Technology tracked a four-day workweek initiative at a 240-people-strong trust and estates company, they found that staff were less stressed and reported more motivation and commitment to their work, which in turn resulted in better performance. This makes sense: 12.5 million UK work days were lost last year because of work-related stress, depression or anxiety, according to the Health and Safety Executive, and the single biggest cause was workload.

The four-day workweek isn’t just some futuristic pipe dream. The fact that this idea has been floated at this point in time is no coincidence: we are finally at a point in technological advancement where it might actually be possible. There are already several businesses in the UK who’ve implemented a four-day workweek. The companies BL spoke did have the altruistic goal of sharing the spoils of technological advancement, but they also genuinely believed it serves the business financially.  

For NautoGuide, a digital mapping company in Swindon with five employees, the decision to move to a four-day week in September was motivated out of a desire to have more time to work on strategic goals. “We had a project that we really wanted to deliver long term as an investment, but we never got round to it because we were always firefighting,” says Dave Barter, CEO and Founder of NautoGuide. The company realised the answer wasn’t to have more resources or to be more efficient, but to have more time to think. “When you’re all in the office you never [take that thinking time], because the phone rings, email comes in, and people want things. The only way we could see to achieve that was by taking ourselves out the office.”

The staff at NautoGuide now work regular hours Monday to Thursday, and Barter thinks it’s fostered an appreciation that this is a place where you get rewarded for your good work right now, rather than maybe someday. “I think there’s also a benefit to being seen as having an open and forward-thinking culture, as [clients] see that and understand it will translate to our work too,” says Barter.

Rich Leigh is the Director and Founder of Radioactive PR, a dozen-people-strong public relations company in Gloucester. “I’ve got incredibly happy staff,” says Leigh, who started the four-day workweek initiative six months ago. The company is making more money than ever before, although the initiative has made a difference to the margins as Leigh has had to hire sooner than he probably would have otherwise needed as he doesn’t want to “squeeze five days into four”. The initiative has made the company an attractive place to work, Leigh says: “We get so many CVs. Inevitably we’ll be finding the very best people.”

Becky Simms, CEO and Founder of Reflect Digital, a marketing agency in Kent with a staff of 55, has also found that business has been good since moving to a four-day workweek in October: “We’ve closed the most business and had the most revenue.” The initiative was inspired by a desire for staff to be their best in the office, says Simms – agency work is high pressure: “You’re really worn out by the time you reach the weekend. [The four-day week] was inspired by that buzz you get after three day weekend. Now we can have that time to relax, but still really work hard while we’re in the office.”

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While these early day experimentations with the four-day workweek are promising, it is very early days – it is hard to say for sure just how this change will affect companies’ bottom line. But while people on the Channel Islands put in just as many long hours, corporations in finance, professional services, and tourism industries may be less inclined to opt for less time in the office as a means of passing on the benefits of automation, at least for now.

The Channel Islands are “not as advanced as the UK in terms of digital transformation, says Pierre Jehan, Client Services Director of Resolution IT, an IT outsourcing specialist in Guernsey. Pointing to the 2,000 vacancies in the Guernsey finance sector alone, Jehan says it’s clear that automation has a role to play in closing this gap: “But with the shortages that they have, employers may be reluctant to offer a day per week off.”

But employees on the Channel Islands are still seeing other benefits of automation and digital transformation passed on to them, with opportunities for remote working and flexible hours: “Automation can also make workers’ lives more enjoyable by taking mundane tasks away and making them more efficient, and letting them concentrate on the nicer things in their jobs.” Jehan strongly believes in rewarding the people who create the savings – if a department comes up with new methods for saving hours, they should directly benefit from it. “Companies, in whatever sector, should empower staff to use these technologies in order to become more efficient and innovative through digital transformation. And in the same breath, they should reward their staff for doing so.”

While agreeing that Channel Island companies should be looking to robotic process automation or AI to help fill the worker shortages, Justin Bellinger, Chief Digital Officer of Channel Islands telecommunications supplier Sure thinks there are fundamental issues that needs addressing before the four-day workweek will make it onto the agenda. This will include tutoring and retraining: “We need to work out what machines can do that will benefit our businesses. What do I want my people doing it instead of manual input? The answer will be more interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence – things that will add value beyond the basic grind.”

This has already started happening on the Channel Islands, says Bellinger, pointing to the fund insurance and trust sectors: “As we come under ever-increasing regulatory scrutiny in the financial services sector, I firmly believe that regulators will start to automate compliance. … We’ve already started to see that in the gaming industry.”

The proponents of the four day workweek have an uphill battle ahead to convince business leaders that more time away from the desk could actually mean better overall job performance. “But how long that person has spent at their desk is a false way of looking at productivity. We’re not working at cotton mills anymore,” says Bellinger. Most people can only focus for five or six hours per day before fatigue sets in and quality starts to decline; when a Swedish retirement home ran a six-hour workday experiment in 2016, they found that nurses were less stressed, got sick less often, and had more energy to spend on quality interactions with their patients. It’s a fallacy to think that keeping people at work automatically means getting more out of them.” Research backs this up – most people can only focus for five or six hours per day before fatigue sets in, so it’s a fallacy to think that keeping people in the office automatically means getting more out of them.

For Rich Leigh, the change to a four-day workweek has had the benefit of positioning his company as forward-looking and innovative. “We’ve had clients come to us as a direct result of this, saying they we like the fact that we don’t just talk the talk, but walk the walk too.” Ultimately, Leigh cares about ensuring his staff are happy: “These are people you spend the majority of your life with. Why wouldn’t you want to give them the best time that you can?”