How could a 4-day work week impact small businesses?

How could a 4-day work week impact small businesses?

According to BBC News, the UK now works longer hours than any other country in Europe, bar Greece. While we work just over an hour longer than the European average, many countries, such as France, have a shorter standard working week and offer overtime or rest day accrual for any hours done above that.

Without an overtime guarantee despite working some of the longest working days, it is no wonder that the UK is beginning to talk about a 4-day work week. In fact, the Scottish Government has already committed to a limited trial of it and the Welsh Government is considering one as well.

According to Metro News, 5% of SMEs in the UK have already moved to a 4-day week, so if you’re considering the switch, read on to find out the pros, cons and how to handle clients moving to a 4-day week even if you’re keeping more traditional work hours.

What is a 4-day work week?

While a 4-day work week sounds pretty self-explanatory there’s actually a diverse range of ways that businesses are implementing it. Really any adaptation to the 40-hour work week that creates a better work/life balance for employees has been referred to as a ‘4-day week’ but how it’s managed varies from company to company.

Here’s a breakdown of some of the various adaptations that have been trialed:

4 days work, approximately 35 hours, for the same pay as a 5 day/40-hour week

4 days work, approximately 35 hours, with pay pro-rated for the reduction in hours

4 days work, approximately 40 hours, making workdays closer to 10 hours

4 days work and the 5th day is for training or upskilling

35 hours contracted usually 40 actually worked, but paid overtime expected

As you can see, there’s quite a few ways that employers are looking into changing the standard 9 to 5. If none of these models look good to you, you can always create a new method that works for your business – there’s no single right way to do this.

What are the benefits to your business?

Productivity increase
Most trials saw the productivity of the workers increase or at the very least stay the same. The results of one trial in New Zealand saw a 20% productivity increase when they switched to 4 days per week.

Less absences or sick leave used
If one of your concerns about working fewer hours is business continuity, a shorter week can help reduce disruption by minimising staff absences. In fact, one Glasgow based marketing company said that sick leave was at an all-time low during their 4-day work week trial.

Aids recruitment & retention
After a year or two of working at home, many employees have been enjoying flexible working models. A shorter working week could be an attractive benefit for recruiting new staff and retaining existing staff, which is exactly what one London-based comms agency said when they switched to a shorter week.

Happier employees with lower stress
A company in New Zealand saw their staff stress levels drop by 7%, while people felt work/life balance improved by more than 10%.

Reduction in office costs
With less people in the office, you might find yourself saving on electricity, heating, paper and ink. This was the case for Microsoft Japan during their 4-day week trial where there was a 23% reduction in electricity use and a 59% decrease in pages printed.

Lower carbon footprint
Less people commuting can greatly reduce the environmental impact of driving cars every day. The reduction in frivolous printing and heating an entire office can also have a positive impact.

Creating a more gender equitable workplace
With nearly 2 million people not employed in the UK due to childcare needs and 89% of those being women, giving some time back to employees can help mitigate the gender gap in jobs.

An extra day of spending
Even if you’re not changing to a 4-day work week, others doing so could benefit your business. It’s like adding an extra day to the weekend and could increase footfall in times that used to be slow.

What are the disadvantages?

A possible rise in costs
For shiftwork or a job that needs 24/7 staff, there would likely be a rise in staff costs to cover shifts. This was the reason for ending a six-hour work day experiment at state-run nursing homes in Gothenburg, Sweden as the cost of hiring new staff to fill gaps in the rota became untenable.

Business shutdown
If everyone is off on Fridays that means the business effectively shuts down for 3 days straight. While this may be manageable in some industries, it can be quite challenging in others.

Exacerbate classism issues
The shorter weeks are more realistic to implement in corporate or white-collar jobs meanwhile; many blue collar or shift-based jobs may find the switch to challenging to do without pay cuts. According to Asheem Singh, Economic Director of the Royal Society of Arts, splitting the labour force in this way may create greater class divides.

Complex to implement
Between contract regulations, spreading out days off and finding an adaptation that works for all staff, it can be hard to implement. In London, a major company called Wellcome was in favour of a 4-day work week until their research showed that they could not fit together all of the teams’ needs without causing significant disruption and threatening operations.

Staying competitive
Working one less day a week can make it difficult to stay on top of competitors. One company based in Oregon, USA had to move back to a 5-day week after years of a 4-day week when they found it was hurting their competitive edge.

Collaboration challenges
If people are in and out of the office on different days, it can make it challenging to have a meeting with everyone present and reduce the collaborative capacity of your team.

Managing clients and a 4-day work week

Whether you’re moving to a 4-day work week or a client is, having one less day of contact available per week can lead to new challenges. Here are a few ideas for handling that change:

Communication is key

  • Let them know what is changing and how you plan to manage it so that everyone is on the same page from day one.
  • Set up a meeting to discuss and work through any questions or concerns either party has.
  • Consider setting up an out of office for your day off in case clients forget about the new working arrangements.

Set clear expectations

  • If the new hours change the lead time you need to meet a deadline or get sign-off, then clear expectations need to be set so that the ball isn’t dropped on any work.

Keep things consistent

  • Try to keep the days you’re off consistent so that clients aren’t confused about when you can and can’t be reached.

Have emergency protocols in place

  • If you work with clients that may have a time-sensitive request, have an emergency protocol in place where clients can reach you if need be!
  • Set clear boundaries on what constitutes an emergency, or you may find yourself working 5-days a week still.

Should I adopt the 4-day work week?

Each business has their own needs, so it’s hard to say if the 4-day work week will work for you. However, hearing from the successes and challenges of other businesses attempting a shortened working week may help you decide.

Select a country to find out how a 4-day work week turned out in different places around the world:

Select a country

A trial in one Danish municipality has been in progress for over a year and seen great success so far – including better availability to their constituents. Read more

When introduced, there was pushback to the mandatory 4-day maximum work week with fears of damaging the economy. After a few years, new government leaders came and scrapped the programme. Read more

50 million euros has been allocated to Spain’s 32-hour work week commitment. This funding is meant to reduce employer risk when participating in the trial. Read More

A small recruitment agency in Ontario found that a 4-day week improved employee work/life balance and now would never go back to a traditional work week. Read more

Though the American chain, Shake Shack, initially saw the short week as a great way to attract and retain staff, COVID-19 has caused them to end their trial for now. Read More

Scotland has begun a trial that sees a 4-day week with no loss of pay. Interestingly, the reduced hours do not need to be taken weekly. Read More

A 4-day mindset, 5 days a week

While there are many benefits, the 4-day work week can be especially challenging for companies that operate outside the 9-to-5 range. If you’re nervous, consider trialing it rather than committing long term – but be sure to have a clear way to measure the success of the experiment both in employee happiness and business outcomes.

If moving to a 4-day week isn’t right for your business, there are still some lessons to be learned from it:

Work life balance is important

The heart of the 4-day work week chat is really about balancing our lives better. Make sure there’s clear boundaries on when you’re working and when you’re not. Having a designated ‘off’ time will help with avoiding burnout.

Employees appreciate flexibility

If your business has employees, allowing flexible work schedules is an easy way to show you trust them. While giving one day off a week every week may not be possible you could investigate hybrid working models, flexi-time models, and offering Fridays off in just the summer or around Christmas time as a seasonal perk!

We know that for many small businesses the 4-day work week feels impossible as it takes a lot of long hours and hard work to build a business from the ground up. However, the 4-day work week discussion is powered by the desire for a better work/life balance, which is relevant for everyone in the working world.

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