Exclusive: Aspire chairman Paul Farrer warns Brits ‘not to walk blindly into four day week’
From a healthier work/life balance and greater job flexibility to giving employees the freedom to spend more time with their family or even focus on a side hustle, the potential advantages of the four day working week are huge.
Businesses could stand to benefit too, with happier, more productive and focused staff. Amid record level of job vacancies, being an early adopter could prove key in attracting the candidates employers need to overcome existing skills shortages.
But as with any big change in ways of working, the four day working week requires careful thought, planning and monitoring, argues Paul Farrer, the founder and chairman of recruitment giant Aspire.
Whether it’s the potential to impact productivity or your ability to meet demand and remain competitive, employers shouldn’t walk blindly into this, Farrer told City A.M. in an exclusive interview.
A four day week; are you acknowledging that you’re 20 per cent overstaffed?
Many business leaders take the view that if a business can perform as well as or better by working four days a week then it’s underperforming on a five day week. So before you consider introducing it, ask the question of whether you might be overstaffed by 20 per cent.
“If you can achieve 100 per cent out of 80 per cent, why not extract 20 per cent extra from the five day week?”Paul Farrer
At the moment, there’s little evidence of the four day week being successfully trialled by private sector companies in the most competitive economies.”
Will your business be able to meet demand?
Reducing working days may impact your ability to meet the demands of customers and clients who, in this day and age, expect services and their needs to be satisfied instantly. The industry matters too. A haulage company can’t be as effective or productive working four days a week – its output can’t be as great. Public services, whether the NHS, police force or emergency services – which are 24/7 and already under enormous pressure – can’t either.
I can’t help but feel that accountants, lawyers and other businesses that bill by the hour will also have headaches. As will PR, design, media and marketing agencies that are expected to react quickly to client demands and briefs.
But this isn’t the case across the board. For example, in New Zealand in 2019, a financial services firm – Perpetual Guardian – reported a 20 per cent rise in productivity, along with happier staff and increased profits. They achieved this by giving employees time to think about how they could work differently, encouraging them to come up with ways to measure their own productivity.
“Being less available is likely to cause problems.”Paul Farrer
Here in the UK and in the US we may have to wait a little longer to see the results of four day working week trials, but if managed carefully and the level of service is uninterrupted, there’s nothing to suggest that it won’t become commonplace.
Will this work in the private sector?
In Iceland, a four day week trial led to productivity gains, but given this was held in the public sector – which is renowned for inefficiency – I’m a little cynical. The profit-driven private sector is a different environment. Whatever happens, only consider a four day week as a trial for a reasonable length of time to prove the concept – choosing a team or location to try it out for six months or so. How you communicate this change externally, to customers, needs careful thought.
What about staff pay?
In some of the pilot projects, employers have kept paying staff the same for working less. In others, the hours worked across the week stay the same but are condensed into four days. As far as I’m concerned, paying staff less seems out of the question if this is an initiative led by the employer.
And what about remaining competitive?
Naturally the vast majority of organisations will stay open on their normal days but with 20 per cent less staff. Closing for one day a week, for example, would impact your competitiveness. Take recruitment, just as an example. If the policy was to close the business one day a week on Friday, all candidates and employers contacting the business then would need to wait until Monday for a reply.
I can’t speak for all industries, but shutting down one day a week could be risky.Paul Farrer
In the meantime, competitors could have already spoken and started working with that potential client. You’d lose business. Shift working, to make sure the business is still open on its usual days – even if there are fewer staff to cover more ground – must be a wiser option.
How can you keep employees engaged?
Less time – or days – spent working means businesses will need to do more to keep their employees engaged. Add to this the rise of fully remote and hybrid working and the requirement to monitor staff engagement to retain company culture becomes greater.
And what about staff training?
Yes, training new and existing staff becomes trickier if 20 per cent of the workforce is absent throughout the week or your business is open for fewer hours. There’s less time to fit in staff training, workshops, catch-ups, performance reviews and so on. Along with impacting skills development for existing employees, it could have a big say on how quickly new starters are able to get up to speed.
Can the four day working week be used to attract talent?
Absolutely. Five days’ pay for four days’ work and no extra hours is naturally attractive. But it’s important that businesses don’t adopt the four day week simply to attract or retain candidates, no matter how competitive the jobs market is. Flexibility is just one of many important job factors: salary, business culture, diversity and inclusion and progression each play a key role in attracting new candidates and holding onto existing employees.
Finally, could a four day week create mental health issues?
From where I stand, the honest truth is that by adopting a four day week, a firm is admitting that it’s not as efficient or as productive as it could be. With hybrid working and work/life balance significantly improved as a result of businesses being forced to change working practices due to Covid, the question of whether a four day week will improve this needs to be asked. Will the same employees feel under pressure to deliver in four days what they used to in five? We can all work harder and smarter, but few can do it all the time.