Four-day working week? No thanks, it will kill our business

by Paul MacKenzie-Cummins

Over the last 12 months or so, the management press, and general media for that matter, has been reflecting on the increasingly popular notion of a four-day working week. The zeitgeist suggests that a move away from the traditional five-day model is good for employees and employers alike. But is it?

I run a PR agency of nine people and as we continue to grow our team, I’m keen to ensure we have a structure in place that works for everyone. So, over the last few weeks, I have conducted a lot of research into whether dropping to a four-day working week will work for my business or not.

While there are compelling reasons outlined in the plethora of studies for a shorter week, I have concluded that this is not a viable option for our business. And here’s why.

Good for employees, not so for employers?

In September 2018, the TUC published a report which found that 81% of UK workers are in favour of working fewer days each week, with 45% gunning for a four-day week without a loss in pay. You don’t say. That much is obvious. After all, if someone is asked to do less work but for the same remuneration, only a fool would turn it down. But is it actually good for businesses?

Invariably, any story you read on the subject references the case of the wealth management firm Perpetual Guardian in New Zealand. It is held up as an exemplar of this new approach. According to the company, 78% of employees feeling they were able to successfully manage their work-life balance.

However, look beyond the headlines and a very different (truer) picture emerges. While the company did indeed find that the quality of work didn’t suffer as a result of transitioning from a five- to a four- day working week, it also found it didn’t improve either.

Pressure on employers

There are two options on how the four-day working week will manifest itself: employees still work the same number of hours but over a shorter period of time meaning the average working day will take the form of 10 rather than eight hours; or, the number of hours are cut from 40 to 32 each week. Neither, in my view, work.

Take the first option for instance. The whole idea of a shorter week is to boost employee satisfaction levels and enable them to achieve a better work-life balance, while boosting productivity at the same time. None of these things will be achieved by cramming those hours into four days. As a PR firm, we need our people to be as creative in their thinking as possible, and expecting them to put in a shift of 10 hours a day will stifle this. That’s not good for me as a business owner, nor is it good for our people or the clients we work with.

As for option two, well, that’s just as ineffective. If the workload won’t change yet the time available to complete it does, staff could – and will – feel pressurised, stressed and increasingly time-poor. Moreover, the impact on the bottom line will also be affected – negatively.

Indeed, if staff pay remains unchanged but the amount of work to be done is maintained at the same level or even increased, as is often the case with ad hoc client projects, then the output per person is reduced. This then forces the employer to recruit more staff to ensure that all work is completed on time and within budget; thereby, increasing staff costs.

Put another way, profit margins will be shrunk because the outgoings of the business have increased while income levels stay the same. The only way to avoid this is to increase rates – if anyone can convince me that clients will be happy with this arrangement, do let me know.

Damaging to businesses

There is a PR firm (not us) that has attracted a lot of publicity over its adoption of the four-day week, Monday to Thursday with a three-day weekend. They claim it has been a master stroke for their business. But as a fellow PR agency owner, this could be very detrimental for several reasons:

1.    Clients expect their PR agency to be on hand when they need them – crisis happens and if it strikes on a Friday, who’s there to help them?

2.    Journalists send most of their requests for quotes and interviews on Friday’s – partly in preparation for the following week, but mainly because more people buy and read newspapers at the weekend. This means that more content is needed: if the PR agency isn’t working, their clients are missing out on some great media opportunities.

3.    After Monday, Friday is the most popular day for new business enquiries. We receive approximately two-four incoming enquiries from potential new clients each month and if we’re not available to answer those calls, we could lose out on new revenues that will support our long-term ambitions. I’ve worked too darn hard to build the business to get it where it is today and there’s not a chance of me doing anything to jeopardise its continued upward trajectory.

Final thoughts

Frances O’Grady, TUC general secretary, said: “I believe that in this century, we can win a four-day working week, with decent pay for everyone.” But if this is to be anything more than a laudable pipedream, as The Guardian put it, there needs to be solid empirical evidence to support the case for transitioning to a shorter working week over the long term.

Today’s workforce is seeking greater flexibility and fewer restrictions. But the move from a five- to a four- day working week ensures these constraints remain in place: nothing has changed – employees are still being instructed on what days and hours they must work.

The answer, in my view, is not a four-day model. Rather, it is to provide employees with control over their working week. Enabling staff to set their own preferred working hours based on those times when they are at their optimal (such as starting work at 7:30am or 11:00am) is more effective. Not to mention the fact that a plethora of research has shown that on average 90% of UK workers want to work for a company that offers flexitime.

Only when staff truly have the option to organise their working week in a way that fits with them at an individual level will we ever achieve employee utopia – that sense of feeling engaged, valued and motivated.