After more than 40 years in business, I’ve seen plenty of workplace fads ‘ supposedly designed to improve our lives and the economy ‘ come and go. One that comes around time and time again is the old chestnut of the four-day-week. It’s a looney idea loved by the trade unions, which has reared its head again as the world comes to terms with the new normal of what will, hopefully, be a post-pandemic world.
It’s been tried a few times at different firms around the world, with varying results, but the latest to jump on the bandwagon is UK online bank Atom. Its employees now work 34 hours over four days and get Mondays or Fridays off, rather than clocking up 37.5 hours work across the whole week.
Put the offer of a short week in front of most working people and they’ll grab it quicker than a cut price TV on Black Friday. The problem is someone’s got to pay for it and that bill will land slap-bang at the door of businesses.
I can understand employers need to come up with quirky ways to attract staff at a time when there are more than a million job vacancies in the UK, but not when it will be to the detriment of our already fragile economic recovery. We’re already battling the working-from-home culture, which is a blow to the economy, and this is just another punch to the gut.
When I owned Pimlico Plumbers, we brought in a load of workplace incentives that were enjoyed by our people, from a free 24-hour fully equipped gym and a subsidised canteen to rooftop barbeques and a regular massage service. Cutting people’s hours and paying them the same money, however, is just crazy. One thought is that it’s about rebalancing the economy, but it’s actually just another way to put pressure on businesses who might buckle under the weight of this ridiculous idea and end up with no workers, let alone people on short working weeks.
The thought is that if you reduce the days worked then people will be more productive, which will generate more income to pay workers the full-week wage. On paper that may seem fine, but it doesn’t take into consideration human nature. You only have to scroll through social media on a Friday morning to see a load of ‘happy Fri-yay’ memes as people start the winddown for the weekend. With all the will in the world, a lot of people just aren’t at their most productive in the last few hours of the week.
By cutting the working week, all it will mean is shifting the pre-weekend slow down to the day before when Facebook and Twitter will be flooded with ‘Happy Thurs-yay’ posts!
In reality, even if firms bring in four-day weeks, they can’t have set extended weekends where everyone clocks off on a Thursday afternoon. It’d have to be more about staggering shifts as workers will have different designated days off, which means that on the day an employee is not there, someone else will pick up on their work.
Again, in theory, that is possible. Places like call centres, shops and restaurants, for example, are used to working in shift patterns. The 24/7 call centre I ran at Pimlico managed it with precision. But there are plenty of jobs that aren’t like that where this way of working is just not practical.
All it will mean is customers or clients will be left waiting for a response, which is bad for business. To make this work, employers will have to hire more people, but that’s a load more cost too, so everything is going to go up in price.
And the last thing we need at the moment is more pressure on inflation, which is rising fast, and with that comes a whole load more economic pain, plus companies will go bust. We need to stop all this crazy talk and get back to a working world where people understand that to create value you need to put in some effort at the coalface. At the very basic level, we have to go to work to put food on the table, a roof over our heads and hopefully have a little something left over to help us enjoy our lives. Of course, having a decent work/life balance is important, as is protecting our mental health, but shorter weeks aren’t the answer. The same amount of work being squeezed into less time will only lead to burn out and less motivation to go back. You think the ‘Monday blues’ are bad now? Just wait till after a regular three-day weekend! Employers have to create environments where employees want to be, enjoying their job as part of a motivated and talented team. That’s what drives productivity and keeps workers engaged.