Is a four-day work week right for your business? Here’s what you need to consider

growing-your-business four-day work week downturns

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Full pay for 80% of the hours. Permanent long weekends. Productivity increases. The list of potential benefits for businesses and employees from the four-day working week seem endless. 

Australian businesses are joining a four-day working week trial, alongside 70 organisations in the United Kingdom and another 38 in the United States. With more than 3300 employees participating, it is one of the biggest employment experiments ever undertaken.   

The five-day working week evolved as a social norm from the early 1900s and this new trial will measure how productivity, the environment, gender equality and quality of life are affected by slicing off another day. 

There is evidence of a positive impact on workplaces in previous forays into this area, and a recent UK survey found 70% of participants believed that a shorter workweek would improve their overall quality of life.

But conducting a thorough risk assessment is critical before you start planning those long weekend road trips. 

Managing expectations

Switching to a four-day working week sounds simple enough but employers may be surprised that their expectations about what the model looks like may differ from employees.

Is it a 40-hour week but condensed into four days, or will the business simply work harder over a 32-hour week? Will a four-day week encompass everyone in the same way, or will there be an opt-in mechanism? Will there be a split, with a red team working Monday to Thursday and a blue team from Tuesday to Friday? 

For some, 40 hours work across four days is easily achievable. Firefighters, nurses and fly-in fly-out workers are just three examples where 10- and 12-hour shifts are the norm.

But for those unused to the long stretch, consultation is necessary on every element to reduce the risk of cultural damage because with a myriad of opportunities elsewhere, a poor culture quickly translates into staff exits.

Expectations need to be managed, as well as workloads, and a buy-in from both employees and employers to the new model is crucial to its success. Some may want Monday or Friday to give them an extra day on the weekend, with others choosing to split the week. Individual circumstances may mean people want different days off but those unable to get their preferred day may feel a perception of unfairness. 

A key benefit pushed by those in favour a four-day work week is the promise of greater productivity This is a risk that needs to be assessed because despite positive reports, no two businesses are the same and a fall in output would be a disaster. Mechanisms for measuring productivity may be necessary but if business leaders introduce, for example, timesheets for the first time, this will be a big change for many workers.  

There is also the question of capacity. Long weekends are great for mental health but if already stressed employees are fighting to cram more work in to avoid opening the laptop on weekends, will it really deliver a benefit?

On the flipside, there is a risk that key staff are lured away if competitors are pitching three-day weekends as an incentive in the name of flexible working conditions.

Get strategic

Adopting four-day weeks will also change how clients and customers are serviced by a business, but a strategic approach is necessary to examine the flow-on effects.

If a settlement agency decided that its people would be uncontactable on Fridays, that means home buyers would be unable to settle on that day, which in turn would change the way a real estate agent or a bank conducted its business. 

An on-call or after-hours roster may be necessary to ensure clients can still access serves as required, but that in turn will affect how people plan their three-day weekends.

Closing the doors on an extra day may risk opening the door to competitors who decide that a five-week still works, leaving them with an opportunity to steal customers and market share. Every industry will be different, and in fact if industry consensus was possible, it might be advantageous to ironing out some of the difficulties. 

But other invested parties may feel differently. Retailers who operate in a shopping centre may on the whole support a four-day week, but the landlord remains is a key stakeholder in retail and could step in if shutting the shop violates the term of the lease.

What is good for employees may not always be good for suppliers or other key business relationships. This strain on working relationships can test the strength of the bonds you’ve built with those who help you run your business.

The world will look on with intrigue as to whether the four-day week catches on and if this trial delivers happier staff and greater productivity, it may be more widely adopted in Australia.  

Shorter work weeks may be welcomed by employees and turn out to be good for business productivity, but employers need to properly assess key risk areas before trying to compress five days into four.

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