What small businesses think of the four-day working week

Labour has pledged to make a four-day working week the norm within ten years. We asked small business owners what they think of the idea.

Labour announced a raft of proposals during its party conference this year, including a reduction in the standard working week to 32 hours (four days) within the next decade.

The four-day working week isn’t a new idea, but it still sparks as much debate as ever.

Some see it as the panacea to our continuing productivity issues. In Britain we’ve long been lagging behind, which seems unusual as we have some of the longest working hours in Europe. Not by a huge amount, though – 42.5 hours a week versus 41.2 hours across the continent on average.

It then makes sense that most of the country’s workers would like to see a shorter working week.

YouGov research shows that 63pc of British people are in favour; we’re among the most enthusiastic of the seven nations surveyed (Britain, Germany, France, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Norway). Additionally, almost a third (31pc) think it would make us more prosperous, compared to 19pc who believe the opposite (34pc say it would make no difference). Meanwhile, 45pc believe four-day weeks would make us more productive, compared to 21pc who think we’d be less productive.

The most striking stat is how much happier it could make us. An overwhelming 71pc think a four-day week would lead to us feeling more cheerful while a tiny 5pc think it would make us less happy.

Some businesses have already introduced a four-day work week which has seen a positive boost in employee wellbeing and by consequence, increased output. Why don’t we all do it?

Not that easy

A recent report from cross-bench peer, Robert Skidelsky, stated that working fewer hours with the same pay would be unrealistic. He points to the introduction of a 35-hour working week in France in 1998. In order to make the policy work, the Government had to subsidise companies so that they could hire more employees. Law changes by subsequent Governments weakened the initial ruling by giving employers more flexibility to increase hours.

Skidelsky concludes that the reduction of working hours needs to be considered on a sector-by-sector basis. It’s clear that the shorter working week isn’t practical in certain sectors like medicine and retail. However, he does suggest that working hours in the public sector could be reduced without cutting pay.

He highlights small businesses as a vulnerable group. For private sector companies, profit margins won’t be great enough to incur hiring and training costs to take on more staff so that they can share the workload.

Read: Is a four-day working week really a boon for productivity and staff wellbeing?

What impact would the four-day working week have on small businesses?

The oft-hailed backbone of Britain’s economy have differing opinions on the subject of a shorter working week.

MRL Consulting Group moved to a four-day working week five months ago and the results are encouraging. Chief executive David Stone tells us more.

The UK has a problem with productivity, with the average employee thought to do about three hours of actual work in an eight-hour day. If we take out the time spent scrolling, socialising and procrastinating, it is absolutely possible to complete the same amount of work with one day fewer.

My team are healthier, both mentally and physically, than they were five months ago and that means that when they are here they are focused, engaged and determined to get the job done.

I’m saving money by not having the office open for an extra day per week, I’m able to attract and retain the best talent in the industry and we’re able to achieve exactly the same output – if not more – as we were previously. It’s a win-win-win situation.

MRL consultant Chris Percival has used the extra day to spend more time with his family.

My wife and I are expecting our first child in October, so I’ve been able to use my Fridays to get prepared for our new arrival.

Having a three-day weekend means less stress and more energy to focus on my family. I’ll be able to spend crucial time with the baby and will also be able to help out with childcare further down the line when my wife returns to work.

Laura Giffard is the founder of Perq Studio. The creative agency has introduced a four-day week – but not with the three-day weekend you’d expect.

Naturally, our primary consideration was how a four-day work week would impact our clients. We sat down as a team, scrutinised the peaks and troughs in both our internal and client communication workflow and overlaid that with the production rhythms of our industry. Plus, as we’re sector agnostic, we had to consider the various industries in which our clients operate.

We quickly realised that, regardless of our clients’ industry, Monday is when everyone hits the ground running from the weekend and late Thursday and all day Friday is when everyone’s natural anxieties about project deadlines begin to appear, updates are usually expected and last minute requests can come in. These considerations, and the fact that we felt three days in a row was too long for our clients to be without our support, meant we had two days left to choose from: Tuesday and Wednesday.

We briefly considered a rota system, whereby alternating team members would ‘cover’ on each day, but this just added unnecessary complexity and left us in danger of confusing the clients. It would render moot the whole work-life balance principle we were aiming to achieve as people would inevitably be contacted with questions ‘only they could answer’ on their day away from the office.

Upon reaching out to clients to float the proposal we received an overwhelmingly positive response, some even expressing envy and a desire to implement something similar in their workplace. This sealed the deal and Perq’s ‘Tuesplay’ was born, one full day a week when the studio is officially closed.

From a management perspective, certainly there are some hoops to jump through. The reduction in weekly hours required contractual adjustments for things like amended annual leave calculations. We have gone down from 25 days annual leave to 20, but as we’re on a four-day work week the overall number of days hasn’t really changed, just the timings around how they’re taken.

Small concerns raised early on around how the move might affect our business output were thankfully misplaced.  A particular feature of creative industries is that a large number of ‘hours put in’ doesn’t necessarily equate to quality work, often it’s the opposite as creativity can lag over time.

That said, to make a four-day week work you need to have a hiring bullseye that recognises top performers and self-starters, as when hours are reduced, there’s less room to manoeuvre and every single member of the team needs to be on point. That’s actually why we introduced an official ‘no moonlighting’ clause. We want the team to return to fresh to work each Wednesday rather than exhausted from another gig!

Steph Palmer from Carnsight Communications talks about a company with a slightly different approach.

One of our clients, programmatic specialist Encore Digital Media, also champions flexible working but has chosen to go down a slightly different route of a nine-day fortnight instead of a four-day week. This scheme means they get an extra day off every two weeks with no adjustment to pay or working hours. However, unlike the traditional four-day week, employees are encouraged to take a different day off each fortnight.

This works better for them because the media industry is always-on, so cutting out the same two full working days every week isn’t feasible for the company and its clients.

However, the extra day off every fortnight has shown to improve staff mental health, productivity and team collaboration. They say that 100pc of the team feel more productive with 100pc agreeing that it helps them to recuperate and regenerate their energy.

Helen Trevorrow, managing director of Green Row Communications, disagrees with the four-day week. She says her firm needs to be able to respond around the clock to ensure that it can compete.

We won lots of contracts because we are small, quick and able to react more quickly than a big lumbering organisation. The context of the business is important here.

For many SMEs in the service industry, a unique selling point (USP) is their ability to offer round the clock reactive services. The answer is not in sweeping legislation which will be prohibitive and confrontational and place an additional burden on small businesses. We already have the start of a fantastic flexible working culture which allows women to be mums and breadwinners. My business does not have set hours like a factory and any such move to enforce restrictive time frames on me and my team will damage productivity.

James Dunworth, chairman of E-Cigarette Direct, worries about the impact it would have on the high street.

While a four day working week might be achievable for high-tech high-margin businesses, this could be the nail in the coffin for the UK high street.

Small retail businesses are struggling with overpriced rents, ridiculous property rates and councils who are turning car parks into residential housing. Suddenly expecting retail business to manage a four-day week without reducing pay would lead to a massive decline in a high street struggling to compete with online businesses and lead to huge unemployment in a sector which employs five million people.

Charlie Johnson, founder and CEO of graduate recruitment agency BrighterBox, says he struggles with the limited working hours he currently has.

While a four-day week would undoubtedly appeal to younger workers, the reality for a small business trying to grow is that there already aren’t enough hours in the week as it is.

As a working parent, whose days can often be cut short to do school pickups, you run the risk of only having 20-25 hours per week to do your job properly. So, unless you are a super-efficient operator, your productivity will drop significantly.

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Anna Jordan

Anna is Senior Reporter, covering topics affecting SMEs such as grant funding, managing employees and the day-to-day running of a business.

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