The four-day working week
Unilever has made the news in New Zealand for experimenting with a four-day week for its employees. Given it is such a huge company operating across the world, this is a very interesting development, and potentially a ground-breaking one. The rumour is people from around Unilever on other continents are ringing their New Zealand co-workers, begging them to make it a success.
To be clear, as has been reported, the staff are receiving the same pay and working the same hours each day, but for four not five days. So, the possible downside for Unilever is a 20% drop in productivity. That is where the real observations lie.
But is the four-day week new? It certainly is not. However, the scale is novel. In a recent Radio 4 broadcast, David Stone of MLR Recruiting talked about the way his company has made the decision to not work on a Friday, whilst not changing the rewards. In his view, it is very successful, and this is demonstrable because the KPIs have remained unchanged; the team needs to achieve the same output within four days, so productivity must be increased. He was also open that in recruitment the hours are ‘flexible’, and talking to clients and candidates can frequently be at 10 pm.
MLR Recruitment is a very specific example, but there are many others around the world, perhaps most noticeably in Scandinavia. For instance, in Denmark the average working week is four hours shorter, but productivity is 23.5% greater.
This also links into another important question – how long do we actually work for in reality? A UK study of office workers established the average time to be three hours and twelve minutes, observed over a seven-hour period. The US Department of Labor revealed their research to be even lower at two hours and fifty-three minutes. So what takes up the rest of the time?
- Settling down
- Social media
- Me time
- Attention residue
- Preparing to leave
In fairness, it does depend on the definition of work. Is it being at the computer, attending meetings or discussing company projects? Does it include collaboration, thinking time or problem solving? Nobody can work with a 100% focus on a computer screen for a whole shift.
The micro-manager would say that this is why his approach is correct; you can’t trust people, it’s the way staff behave when you are not watching. And the employees will say the micro-manager is the reason they leave and try to cheat the system.
For many years, Friday afternoons have been very unproductive anyway, as the weekend beckons. In the car industry, the ‘Friday car’ was one the customer didn’t want to buy.
There have been moves to create more personal space for people. A common change has been to move to 4.5 days, albeit with the same aggregate hours. Having Friday afternoons ‘off’ was very well received; it feels like a long weekend. Having moved to this approach and enjoyed it for some years, one company employed a new CEO who didn’t like it and felt it would be more productive to reverse the decision. What a mistake! Productivity plummeted, and everybody left on time every day. A Trade Union convenor explained the psychology of work; the employees can only win time, pay is defined, the boss sets the agenda, or the production schedule does. This means shift patterns, holidays and the contracted hours are key.
Of course, the four-day week cannot be implemented everywhere, but there are many possibilities. To move to a four-day week with no reduction of hours is a leap of faith, but the research is growing.
What would it look like? The simplest model is Monday to Thursday with a long weekend. The staff can spread their third non-workday to ensure the customer can be serviced for a full week. Of course, the terms of employment need to be reviewed.
Do we want it? 68% of the UK public support it, 60% of employees work longer hours than they want, and of the people enjoying some flexibility in working hours, 78% say it has a positive effect on their lives. This discussion may be further influenced by people’s experience of work life during the Covid-19 lockdown; working from home, avoiding a daily commute and the lack of human contact. For staff who can, there may be a hybrid work pattern. All of this would require thoughtful and proactive leadership.
So, why should we consider adopting the four-day working week?
- Mental health improves. Stress is a major problem and leading cause of absenteeism. We also know there is a direct link between mental and physical wellbeing.
- Retention of staff will increase, as people will want to work for the ‘best’ companies. Top talent can walk away even when there is large scale unemployment.
- Attraction of the skilled will be paramount. We have large scale unemployment, but volume doesn’t equal excellence. The marketplace will be difficult if other companies adopt the new pattern and you don’t.
- Overall absence levels will drop.
- Staff will be more motivated, as they work for a thoughtful management team, in a progressive company.
It is through a combination of all of these factors that the productivity hike is achieved. There is a need to trust your people and the vast majority will respond. The few that do not react positively will be obvious. In the first month of its implementation at Microsoft in Japan productivity was up 40%, but would that be maintained?
- Fridays may not be covered. If that is a problem, the day-to-day manning patterns can be revised, but it may still be tough to organise.
- There is no guarantee it works, and that does put more pressure on the leadership to oversee its introduction and provide support
- Less interaction between staff. Again by 20%, and this could affect collaboration, innovation, and the social benefits of the workplace
For some people there will be a Hybrid approach post-Covid, with some home-based working and some in the formal workplace. To be successful in this regard, many of the cons of the four-day week will have to be overcome anyway.
The early reactions to these experiments do seem to be taking a politically Left v Right view:
- Marx and Keynes were strong advocates of more leisure time. This could be especially valuable for women, who currently are estimated to have 5 leisure hours fewer than men and this, according to the Resolution Foundation, is at a time we have less leisure time than 40 years ago.
- The CBI and Scottish Conservatives are against it. A CBI spokesperson called it a step in the wrong direction”. The Conservative leader in the Scottish Parliament, MSP Maurice Golden reacting to an SNP decision to research the value of the four-day week said, “I’m speechless that this dangerous and ludicrous policy has a £2.5 billion price tag every year has now been given the seal of approval”.
Consequently, the Unilever initiative will be watched very closely. If productivity is the issue, the hours are a by-product. We are very focussed on supporting leaders who, irrespective of specific themes like these, want to be highly successful by motivating their staff and behaving positively. This begins with a culture which inspires people and has leaders rather than micro-managers.
Finally, some much bigger questions would include:
- Will it affect consumerism?
- Will there be effects on the climate?
- Can the increased leisure time mean more micro-businesses and a boost to the economy?
- Will there need to be changes to government policies?
- Could we be working more family-friendly hours, such as 9am to 3pm?
- Is there a way to fund any short-term investment, if the case for long-term benefits is demonstrated?
- Do we all need work which has purpose and meaning?