The four day week: it’s not so much a question of productivity, but of a culture of respect

Gemma Chapman
Human Resources
Gemma Chapman, HR Manager

A four day working week can be a great motivator for staff and doesn’t have to mean a drop in productivity, says Gemma Chapman of Lovewell Blake. But making it work is not just an organisational challenge, but a cultural one as well.

Gemma Chapman, HR Manager

In a world where employers are fighting to attract and retain the top talent, offering a better work/life balance has become one of the top priorities.  It is for this reason that an increasing number of employers are considering moving towards a four day week, not in the sense of condensing five days’ worth of hours into four longer days, but through making productivity gains to enable workers to turn up for four normal length days, and then have the fifth day off.

Many employers instinctively recoil from the idea, citing the impossibility of effectively increasing productivity by 25% across the board, as well as other concerns such as meeting clients’ expectations.  But evidence is emerging that the four day week can work well, delivering happier and more motivated employees, attracting the best talent, and all without denting productivity overall.

Achieving this requires some considerable adjustment, though – not just in organisational and contractual terms, but also in the culture of the workplace.  Simply trying to reorganise the working week without that cultural shift is doomed to failure.

Practicalities first though: delivering five days’ worth of output in four days means first identifying where the current unproductive time lies.

History shows that this should be possible.  As long ago as 1926, Henry Ford reduced the working week at his automobile factories from six days to five – i.e. from 48 hours to 40 hours.  To his surprise, he found that productivity was actually higher on the 40 hour working week than it had been in the 48 hour working week.

There is considerable evidence that plenty of time is spent at work being unproductive, whether through badly organised work patterns, or the fact that people working longer hours are less alert and less motivated.

The best way of finding out where any unproductive time lies is to ask those at the sharp end of things.  You might expect some defensiveness at first (no-one wants to admit they are not working hard every hour), but if workers can see the prize of an extra day off, they will be willing to co-operate in identifying how to be more productive.  You may even find that historical work patterns which employers may think are ‘scared cows’ (the traditional tea break, for example) are something which workers are happy to forego in exchange for an extra day off each week.

Negotiation with staff is a crucial part of making the transition towards a four-day week.  This is not just to identify how productivity can be maintained; there will be some concern that cramming a week’s work into four days might introduce new sources of stress, and, of course, making the change permanently will necessitate changing employees’ contracts.

It is important that employers respect the needs of staff, and that staff respect the employer’s needs, and that boundaries are set both ways.  It is a good idea to introduce such a change to working patterns on a trial basis, perhaps for three to six months, before making it permanent, to iron out any potential problems and, in the last resort, leaving the door open to returning to a five day week if it really doesn’t work.

You need to think about customers’ expectations as well.  If they expect you to be providing a service all week, then you can’t simply shut down on a Friday.  This might mean that people in customer-facing teams take their extra day off on different days, which works in larger organisations, but might be more difficult in smaller teams.

Some employers choose to offer a four-day working week to some employees, but insist on a five day pattern for client-facing teams. This sort of staff segregation can lead to resentment, and a confused working culture.

One of the most overlooked aspects of allowing staff to work a four-day week is how you allow staff to genuinely switch off on the fifth day.  If you accept that it is genuinely their own time, you can’t expect them to answer their phone, or check emails, any more than you should at the weekend or when they are on holiday.

This can be a real issue when staff are taking their ‘fifth day’ on a rota basis, and the business is still operating five days a week.  There needs to be a real commitment to letting staff enjoy that extra day off.  That might mean drastic measures such as turning off work emails, but at the very least it will entail instilling a different culture right across the organisation.

And this is the nub of making a four-day week work.  Of course, there are practical considerations to take into account, but even where these hurdles can be overcome, the four day week will only work if there is a genuine culture of respect for everybody’s work/life balance. 

In some senses the organisational, contractual and productivity issues are relatively easy to overcome – but only if there is a genuine culture of respect in place first.

We have a HR consultancy team on hand to answer any questions you may have

Wide-ranging tax planning and compliance services for individuals seeking advice and guidance from our team of experienced and highly qualified professionals.

Friendly and coherent advice and guidance on accounting and tax matters for small business owners including those starting out for the first time.

Established businesses requiring accounting and tax compliance services, forward thinking tax planning advice and the support to help your business succeed.

Our full range of enhanced corporate services aimed at large companies and those requiring audit, assurance, corporate tax advisory and diverse tax planning services.



This is a test definition