Working from home? Three years ago, the idea would have seemed a fanciful, but nonetheless intriguing one. Now, it barely warrants a second thought. The COVID-19 pandemic has had repercussions around the world and hybrid working has become a global reaction borne of necessity. We’ve become accustomed to a new jargon (“you’re on mute”) and we’ve all heard the dreaded two note musical tones as Teams suddenly disconnects you from a meeting. So – agile working – yes, we’ve all mastered it.
Pioneers that we are, it led us at Research Consulting to think – can we take working smarter to the next level; could we work shorter hours yet still fulfil our commitments and maintain our productivity? Could the answer lie in adopting a four-day week?
It’s not a new concept, but the idea may have proved inconceivable without the advent of adaptive ways of working. But, with the blurred lines between our work and domestic lives, you can’t just leave work at work if it’s in your home – the need for separation became more essential than ever.
The idea takes shape
Last July, we began looking at the feasibility of a four-day working week. There are impressive findings that are hard to ignore: 78 per cent of employees with a four-day working week are happier and less stressed and 63 per cent of businesses found it easier to attract and retain talent with a four-day working week (source: https://www.4dayweek.com/).
Before we even knew what COVID-19 was, Microsoft conducted a four-day week trial in Japan way back in 2019. Employees receive no loss of pay and amazingly, productivity increased by 40 percent.
Now, there’s a UK-wide pilot with more than 3,000 workers at 60 companies set to try a four-day week, running from June to December. It’s a multi-industry exploration with organisations of different sizes taking part and is considerably larger than the trial in Reykjavik which included over 2,500 workers and was deemed a resounding success. Similar experiments are also taking place in US and Canada, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.
For many people, working from home both during and post-Covid enabled timesaving benefits – “positive conditions of work” – as described in The Lancet as well as the growing recognition of employee wellbeing. Analysis by the Office for National Statistics showed that around 1 in 6 (17 per cent) of adults experienced some form of depressive symptoms in the summer of 2021 – a sharp increase from ten percent pre-pandemic.
Weighing up the options
The concept of a four-day week began gaining traction within Research Consulting. It first became a consideration at our team away day in July 2021 where we all gave input on how it might work for us, both individually and collectively. We also began to look closely at the logistics and the possible challenges it might entail. No strangers to dispensing a survey or two, we conducted an in-house, anonymous staff questionnaire to analyse what our team thought about working reduced hours with no reduction in salary. Within this, we homed in on the pre-conditions for trialling the system. Concerns raised included:
- How would we make sure our work would get done with no added pressure to meet deadlines?
- How would we adapt project planning and capacity to manage client expectations?
- The mitigation of personal circumstances such as ensuring it worked for parents or anyone with caring responsibilities. What would the implications on holidays be? Is it going to be all or nothing? Is everyone in agreement it would work?
We looked at variations on the theme – different options included:
- Working eight hours a day over four days
- Ten hours a day over four days
- A nine-day fortnight
Or, should just give up the idea and keep our current working pattern?
Then, how would we judge the success of such a trial? We decided we’d monitor stress levels alongside any sense of satisfaction, checking there was no slippage in our service delivery, keeping a close eye on billable hours and making sure there was no impact on clients. A main worry was that the business would be left ‘uncovered’ and our team would be cramming the same work into less time. An overriding concern was that, if we were to have a full day off in its entirety, our clients would not be receiving the same level of service – how could we mitigate this? And, ultimately, afterwards, we’d be asking ourselves: would it be something we’d like to do again?
Making it work for us and our clients
We decided to experiment with a 4.5-day week during November, so it was not too large a leap of faith for all parties. We drew up plans for a reduction in our hours at no loss of pay or holiday entitlement. What’s the catch? Just to switch off from work and to trust the process.
Then, what started out as our “4.5-day week”, quickly became known as “Early Finish Friday” as both its appeal and the intrinsic benefits became immediately clear.
Was there an adverse impact on our productivity? On paper, undoubtedly – we effectively lost 28.5 hours a week, or 114 hours overall and we had a few minor issues with international clients who were starting their working day when we were finishing ours. The solution was very straightforward though: Planning. (And, a few us still honouring a weekly Friday afternoon call with our North American colleagues). Quality was maintained, timelines were fulfilled and the driving impetus of a deadline was no more than usual.
When evaluating the exercise, everyone felt there was a strong case for a shorter working week. Here’s what our team said:
It feels very good to start the day knowing that a good proportion of the day is completely free.
I had more time for social activities, which improved my mental health.
I have still been able to meet all deadlines and fit in all client calls throughout the rest of the week. This is what I would call an actual benefit, over other companies that aren’t as flexible.
So, of all the things you can do in 3.5 hours, for instance: watch Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, drive 187 miles from our office in Nottingham to Barrow-in Furness, listen to Agatha Christie’s The Unexpected Guest on audiobook – ultimately, this is how we spent our time: shopping, emergency book club catch-up reading, dog walking and a leisurely team bottomless brunch.
And as a result, we’re proud to announce that we’re doing it again each Friday this August and September.
We’re already looking forward to less of the 9-5 and more of the 4.5.
Tips for implementing a four (or 4.5) day working week:
- It’s better for everyone to be off at the same time if possible
- Use forward planning to avoid client and project commitments on a Friday afternoon
- Have clear instructions so everyone knows it’s proper downtime – we decided on an Out of Office message and everyone applied it
- Be clear on prioritisation
- Working with different time zones – let your clients know, they’ll most likely be supportive and may well have something similar in operation at their organisation
- Ask for honest feedback from your team – anonymously if preferred
- Ensure consistency and make sure part-time employees have their hours shortened commensurately, so they don’t miss out on the benefit
- We know it’s a hard habit to break but do try to resist the lure of checking your email.
- Staff engagement is critical – a grassroots, bottom-up (not a top-down) approach is most conducive to this, particularly when implementing new working practices
- Leadership sets the parameters of what to achieve, then gets out of the way. No MD or CEO will know the intricacies of how everybody does their jobs
- Everyone having an open-mind and giving a trial a go is integral to its success
- Yes, productivity is increased when hours are reduced, but sometimes there has to be an agreed pathway
- Irregular or unpredictable hours need processes in pace to cover emergencies – having honest conversations with your clients is essential and a good way to explain why you’re moving to the new model.