The inexorable rise of the four day week

More and more companies are adopting a four day week. There’s growing evidence that it’s good for profits and employees alike.

Four day week graphic

 

It’s never the obvious stuff that makes an impact. Trends bubble under the surface for a while before everyone spots them.

So it is with the four day week.

It’s being trialled in countries around the world like New Zealand, Japan, Russia, the USA. Campaigners reckon the UK is leading the way with more companies here adopting it than anywhere else.

All countries with very different working cultures. Yet bosses in each place are coming to the same conclusion: that a four day week is worth trying.

But they’re not trying it for a laugh. They think it’ll boost their business. And there’s growing evidence that they are right.

Recruitment

For example, Shake Shack, the US burger joint tried it out in America last year. And saw a spike in recruitment, particularly among women. They’d tapped into a pool of talent other less flexible firms are missing out on. So now they’ve rolled out the change across their branches, and tightened up their processes to accommodate the change leading to efficiency changes elsewhere.

Shake Shack’s president, Tara Comonte, says the staff loved the perk: “Being able to take their kids to school a day a week, or one day less of having to pay for day care, for example.”

Dads just as much as mums like cutting the childcare bill!

Japan

Japan is a country currently wrestling with its workplace culture. In the face of an ageing population and men slowly going off the traditional long hours culture it is being forced to embrace family friendly policies. So it’s interesting that Microsoft chose to trial a four day week there. With striking results. Office costs were slashed and productivity rose.

A politician taking paternity leave has proved an eye-catching news story in Japan. And the four day week is creeping up the global political agenda.

Labour put it in their election manifesto last year. Of course they lost but of all the ambitious policies they put forward the four day week looks set to endure. A US senator has introduced a bill reducing the working week to 32 hours and Russian leaders have expressed support for the concept. And in Finland the Generation Z government led by a young mum PM is looking to take the lead among the Nordic countries and push through a four day week.

Evidence

So how does it work?

The best evidence we have on that is a study in New Zealand where property firm Perpetual Guardian shortened the working week. Crucially they partnered with a local university to study what happened.

Andrew Barnes, the company’s CEO, has gone on to set up a foundation making the case for a four day week. And he’s just published a book about the experiment and its results. So clearly it worked.

Fundamentally it seems the four day week forces employees to focus. It’s a cliche but it’s about working smarter rather than working harder.

The inevitable office faffing about goes by the wayside. Employees have to prioritise and work out what needs done most urgently and what can wait. That empowers them, instills confidence and fosters a virtuous circle of productivity.

While the four day week remains a novelty employees also feel grateful at getting an extra day off. Friends will ask them about it and they’ll feel good explaining how enlightened their employers are. That makes them an effective advert for any company.

And it opens up new opportunities in terms of recruitment – mums, dads, millennials and generation Z have a different approach to work. They’ll rate firms who show they too are committed to innovation in workplace culture.

Part-time and flexible workers know the negative comments that accompany a different working pattern. The snide remarks about being a slacker or lacking commitment. But if the whole firm adopts the four day week those side effects are diminished if not vanished.

Headaches

Of course implementing a four day week is not entirely straightforward.

There’s work to be done figuring out how the work will be done. Does the whole office close on Fridays? Or do employees get to pick their day off? What works best for the company, and what works best for the employees? And which set of needs takes precedence?

All those issues would be headaches were it not for the evidence that investing in finding solutions to those questions could boost a company’s bottom line.

The upsides are increasingly obvious. And as it catches on it’ll be easier for employees to ask for it.

Ahead of the curve

Companies don’t come much more iconic than Marks and Spencer. Yet their new chief strategy and transformation director Kate Bickerstaffe has just started on a four day week.

“From the get-go I said I would want to do that on a flexible basis,” she says. “Nobody fell off their chair.” She says that earlier in her career she worked for Dixons Carphone as chief executive for UK and Ireland, also for four days a week. “When Dixons talked to me about doing the job, I said I was flattered but I need to do it four days a week because at the time my children were very young,” she says. “They didn’t make a big thing about it and they were respectful.”

But it’d be wrong to think only big blue chip firms can afford a four day week. There are companies of all sizes trying it out. SMEs can often be more flexible in accommodating a four day week.

The idea that the four day week is a fad seems increasingly ridiculous. Very few firms that trial it end up binning it.

Companies that switch to a four day week can claim to be ahead of the curve.

Employees that ask for it could be helping their firms embrace an inevitable future.

How long it takes to become normal isn’t clear. But it’s certain that the four day week is going to become increasingly common.





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