Research suggests a four-day working week could save UK businesses an estimated £104 billion. But Nic Redfern, Finance Director at Know Your Money, says this isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution
Office culture is a highly changeable thing. You only need to look back a couple of decades to see a time when things were very different. We have seen a dramatic shift from blue to white collar jobs, as the UK (along with other developed countries) moved towards a knowledge-based economy, the rise of office culture and the 9 to 5 working day.
In this time, we have also seen a revolution in workplace connectivity. This is largely due to technological developments. Laptops, smartphones and the internet have enabled employees and employers alike to connect with the workplace from any location and at any time. And inevitably, it has brought about shifts in workplace attitudes towards the traditional working day structure.
Yet while we’re more connected than ever, we’re also seeing an alarming productivity deficit. In the UK, it persistently remains at historically low levels, with surveys suggesting we are only productive for 1 ½ – 2 ½ hours of an eight-hour day. Alarming figures from the Office for National Statistics also suggest labour productivity fell at its fastest annual pace in five years from April to June 2019, dropping by 0.5%.
We work some of the longest hours in Europe, but our output is stalling. And simultaneously, our stress levels are rising. So much so that it’s been dubbed the health epidemic of the 21st Century, with 15.4million working days lost to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2017/18.
The flexible solution
Amidst this complex landscape, flexible working is viewed by numerous businesses as one remedy. And the evidence suggests that allowing employees the greater freedom to organise their working day could bring benefits. For example, a recent report from the Chartered Institute for Personal Development cites numerous cases where employees saw boosts in productivity and mental wellbeing as a result of the policy.
People want to be able to come in later (or earlier) to do the school run, work from home to avoid the chaotic commute, and so on, meaning employers are facing growing calls to adjust their pre-existing structures to meet the needs of individual employees. Know Your Money recently surveyed over 2,000 UK adults in full-time employment and revealed that the vast majority (71%) think that flexible working is an important part of overall job satisfaction.
A more radical proposal
But increasingly, leading bodies – including the TUC – are calling for a more radical solution. They are suggesting a four-day week, something many believe would improve our productivity, as well as our collective wellbeing. And while it’s a controversial topic, some trials suggest that in the right scenario, it can be a success.
Last year, New Zealand financial services company Perpetual Guardian made global headlines, when it released the results of their ground-breaking four-day week trial. Not only did it lead to a 20% rise in productivity, but staff reported a 7% drop in stress levels. Since then, the business has had over 300 requests for information from 28 countries. Likewise in 2019, Microsoft Japan experimented with this new working structure and reported a 40% boost in productivity, as well as an increase in workforce morale.
A report by Henley Business School also suggests the four-day working week could save UK businesses an estimated £104billion annually. The research revealed that two thirds of businesses operating on a four-day week reported improvements in productivity, with a third of business leaders saying the switch will be important for future success.
At a glance, it is eminently possible to understand the attraction behind the four-day week. Of course, the most obvious point being that it grants employees an extra day away from the office, thereby catering to the demand for a better work/life balance. Many of those who have adopted it say that they are fitter, healthier and more productive as a result. Indeed, Know Your Money’s aforementioned research revealed that three quarters of respondents were prepared to work extra hours for four days a week, if it meant having three days off.
However, many businesses will find it incredibly difficult to adjust to. For example, some employees may well want Mondays off, whilst others may want to spread out their working hours over six or seven days. To facilitate this, businesses will need to implement numerous policies to ensure that employees are content, whilst maintaining performance. In reality, it is likely that the four-day week will effectively make many people’s working days far more regimented, as managers introduce systems to ensure everyone works their required hours, in a shorter period of time.
Additionally, any seismic change to the working week will require a dramatic overhaul, as an organisation adjusts to a completely new way of working. This will require a huge financial and resource commitment – without it, the adoption of a new working structure will be near impossible. This likely accounts for why many employers are reluctant to implement such a radical change.
However, the needs of the workforce are undeniably changing and if businesses want to attract and retain high quality employees, they must adapt. But the first step for all businesses is to open up a dialogue with their staff to ensure their needs and requirements are heard. Whilst it is usually difficult to always fully accommodate what is asked, listening to what is wanted can help morale.
Thereafter, it’s up to each firm to determine which policies would be mutually beneficial to both the employees and the business itself. Only then can the proper systems and controls be put in place. However, these changes will take time, and it is wrong to automatically assume that a popular policy idea is the right fit for all businesses. Doing so would be a massive set-back to employee satisfaction and organisational performance.
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Nic Redfern is Financial Director for Know Your Money. Know Your Money is an independent financial comparison website, launched in 2004. Run by a dedicated team, Know Your Money’s goal is to provide clear, accurate and transparent comparisons for a wide range of financial products, such as business loans, mortgages and car insurance.
Sophie Barton is our Features Editor. She a journalist and editor with 20 years’ experience in the national media, specialising in wellbeing and lifestyle.