We kicked off the conversation noting the idea of a four-day week was in the spotlight right now, not least because the Scottish Government has committed to a pilot to see how it might work here in Scotland.
At Flexibility Works, we’ve worked with several organisations who’ve successfully implemented four-day working weeks, and we’re getting lots of questions from other companies that are curious about this working model.
Reducing working hours to increase wellbeing and business productivity sounds great in theory. But we know four-day working weeks are no silver bullet. They won’t work for every employer, or every worker.
We love flex. And four-day weeks are one form of flex. But there are many other ways you can work flexibly that can deliver the same wellbeing and business benefits.
Jimmy Paul, director of the Wellbeing Economy Alliance Scotland (WEAll), which co-hosted the event with us, said WEAll has just agreed to a four-day working week pilot for its own staff. Though he admitted he wasn’t sure what challenges would play out, saying
“It’s vital that we think about our relationship with work in a wellbeing economy…The pandemic has shone a light on an economic system which is not working for far too many people.”
He noted research by the New Economics Foundation showing that shorter working weeks give people more control over their time and autonomy, and said there was evidence people who worked shorter hours were more productive.
Rachel Statham, senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) recently co-authored a report looking at the Scottish
Government’s manifesto pledge for a four-day working week pilot.
She said 85% of Scots who responded to their poll thought a reduced working week would improve their wellbeing and two thirds thought it would improve the Scottish economy.
She said a four-day working week could potentially help gender equality at work by improving how much people value part-time workers, who are more likely to be women with childcare responsibilities. But she said there were concerns that some female-dominated sectors, such as cleaning and catering couldn’t see how four-day weeks would work for them.
She also raised related issues about under-employment when workers can’t find enough hours, a lack of flex across many workplaces and issues for low-paid workers who constantly seek more work to make ends meet that needed to be considered holistically, not in silos.
She said: “Our key recommendation is to expand the ambition of working-time trials to make sure we look across a wider range of sectors and a include wider range of workers… so we can get a really clear impression of what shorter working time reductions might mean, the kind of values we might see in particular sectors and how different work patterns might be affected.”
Lorraine Gray, chief operating office at 4ipc Group, which includes Pursuit Marketing, talked about how and why Pursuit introduced a four-day working week in 2016. She said flex was already in the DNA of the organisation, but that economic pressures and an influx of competitors that could offer higher salaries prompted Pursuit to look at what else they could offer to retain their best people.
She said: “We’re a very data-driven business and we’re always looking at productivity and output… We noticed people who worked reduced hours actually achieved the same, if not more, than working a traditional 37-hour week Monday to Friday.”
Conversations with those employees showed how much they valued their flexibility, and made them more focused at work.
She said employees welcomed the move to a four-day week, and that while clients had some questions at first, they quickly saw the benefits because Pursuit was able to retain talented staff and their knowledge for future client campaigns.
Chris Kelly, managing director at The UPAC Group, a packaging supplier in Glasgow that introduced a four-day working week this summer, said the trial had gone well. But some challenges had appeared since they rolled out the new way of working more permanently.
He said: “I want to run a company that I’d want to work in. If you have a long weekend, you know yourselves the benefits of that, and how much you’re ready for the next week and just how much more enjoyable life is. It’s as simple as that.”
Chris said he’d been surprised that some people didn’t want a four-day week, and wanted to come in five days, and that this had raised issues about how much work people were doing for the same amount of pay.
And he said that allowing teams to decide among themselves which day off people took was causing challenges because most people wanted Mondays and Fridays, not the middle of the week.
Giving the team at Upac an extra day of leave per week required employing additional employees. This creation of new jobs is a massive plus in general for the four-day working week model. But as Chris reported current staff shortages across the economy are causing challenges, because his team need to cover operations Monday to Friday.
We were delighted to have Charandeep Singh, deputy chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce on our panel to help represent the views of the business community.
He said: “Figure out what are the red lines for your business model. What is it you want to keep doing? Do you want to have customer service Monday to Friday 9-5? Fine. Let’s look at the full suite of flexible working options and see which ones can still align. Things like staggered working hours and shift patterns, they all still apply.”
He said more members were investing in online chat functions and automated chatbots for day-to-day enquires so employees didn’t need to be in an office. And he said demand for change in how we work, and flexible working in particular, was high and that companies shouldn’t delay conversations about this.
A poll of delegates during the event found 53% were personally interested in working a four-day working week. However, 40% said they’d rather have access to a full range of flexible working options.
When asked about barriers to implementing a four-day working week, attendees said:
- 36% continuity of service
- 24% cost to the business
- 17% leadership mindset
- 7% thought it wouldn’t work in their business model
Steven Boyd, of the Scottish Government, is involved in developing government’s forthcoming pilot on four-day working weeks.
He said the government team was still designing the ‘serious pilot’ and that more detail would be released after Christmas. However, Steven did say they were looking at a pilots of a 32-hour working week, or 20% reduction on standard hours and a corresponding pro-rata cut for part-time workers. He also said that sectors where four-day weeks would be more challenging would be targeted and included.
He said companies involved in the pilot would receive a package of support and ‘some kind of financial incentive’. In return, organisations will be expected to give the Scottish Government ‘full access’ to data and feedback, and that issues, such as whether staff were working extra ‘undeclared hours’, would be thoroughly interrogated.
Steven said it was important businesses considering a four-day working week introduced this with other flexibility, and that it wasn’t a rigid model.
He also said: “Understandably people are talking very positively about the four-day week, about what it’s meant for them and their businesses, and what it might mean for people’s wellbeing. We can lapse into the point of view where we think this is a free lunch – the change is going to be so positive and the productivity improvements of a scale and a speed that the costs will essentially pay for themselves.
“I think this might hold true for some companies at the margins but certainly doesn’t for the many centrist firms. We have to be mindful of that. For the vast majority of companies, if they’re choosing to implement a four-day week, there will be costs and they have to work with that reality.
“That’s really the point of the Scottish Government looking to pilot this, we want have a better understanding of the costs and benefits and how these differ across sectors and different workplaces.
Needless to say we will aim to support the programme and pilot projects, not only helping organisations to trial a four-day working week but to encourage and them look at all elements of flexible working which could benefit their business and their people.
Bonnie Clarke, chief executive of Remarkable, did a brilliant job chairing the event, and picking up the many questions from attendees. Lots of people asked about what employers do for staff who already work part-time, or in another flexible way. Lorraine Gray said her staff worked other forms of flex, including part-time hours across the four-day week, and Chris Kelly said the company used team targets, rather than individual targets so part-timers benefited too. There were also several questions about how to monitor and compare outputs and outcomes between four and five day weeks, to which Charandeep said companies’ existing productivity monitoring methods could be used and the data compared.
As you can see, there was a lot to say! We’re delighted there’s so much interest in more flexible working patterns and a four-day week could be just right for you and your people. But please don’t forget to think about all the other forms of flex. And that the benefits ultimately stem from giving your people choice and control. Listening to what they want is the most important first step.
We watch with anticipation for the full details of the Sottish Government four-day working week pilot. You can watch the full discussion here.