The 4 day working week: is it a viable option for UK startups?

What does a four day working week look like for startup businesses?

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The four day working week UK landscape

In the UK 2019 general election, the then shadow chancellor John McDonnell stated that “the next Labour government would reduce the average full-time working week to 32 hours within the next decade.” 

While we’re all aware that the Labour party didn’t get into power in 2019, it hasn’t stopped some UK businesses from introducing a four day working week of their own accord. 

The four day work week isn’t just a concept intriguing UK businesses. It’s an idea that has been toyed with around the world. 

New Zealand company Perpetual Guardian raised worldwide interest when it saw positive outcomes from its four day work week trial, while France has been working 35 hour weeks since the year 2000. 

However, the concept of working fewer hours while retaining the same productivity level is a hard act to balance. Introducing a four day working week isn’t about cramming more hours into fewer days – it’s about learning to become more productive and economical with your usual daily working hours. 

According to a study by Henley Business School, when done correctly, a four day working week can save businesses £92bn a year. This doesn’t just come down to the fact that people are working fewer hours – it also comes down to the fact that staff take less time off sick, and productivity levels increase. 

In fact, with the study also reporting that 64% of employers who have trialled four day weeks have seen an improvement in productivity, it’s to no surprise that 75% of business owners now think that flexible working is the way forward

With the coronavirus pandemic forcing businesses to adopt a more flexible approach to working hours and cut costs where possible, it seems businesses are open to four day working weeks now more than ever.

4 day work week pros and cons

As previously mentioned, the four day working week is a hard act to balance. Ensuring it doesn’t have the opposite effect – costing businesses money and making employees more stressed – means businesses should make sure they get the correct advice or carry out thorough research to help them transition to a four day working week effectively. 

According to a write up of a four day week trial carried out by firm MRL Consulting Group, these are some of the benefits they experienced and challenges they faced:

Four day work week pros and cons

Pros of a four day work weekCons of a four day work week

Colleagues come back after a three day weekend feeling refreshed and ready to goColleagues may not adjust to increased productivity over four days, meaning figures suffer.

Employees were taking fewer sick days, especially ones that were due to work-related stressMonday bank holidays require working on Fridays, as three day working weeks don’t allow enough time to operate effectively

Staff have more autonomy over how they organise their time and when and where they workSocial culture may change – Thursday evening isn’t the same as Friday evening

When done correctly, a four day work week can improve mental health and offer a more balanced working weekThursday afternoons can’t be the new Friday afternoons (where it’s normal for productivity to drop)

The business attracts and retains high calibre staff

Startups spoke with Martin Norbury, business mentor at Advocate Business Services, to find out more about some of the benefits and challenges startup businesses face when switching to a four day working week. 

“Before you move to a four day working week, it’s important that you consider whether it’s actually possible for your business. In other words, do you have the structure in place to support it?”

“You need to have a starting point, an end point, and a plan on how to get there. Think of it like cycling from Lands End to John O’Groats,” says Norbury. “Decide on how long you want to take to do it, and put the steps in place to reach your goal in that time.”

Norbury explains that businesses benefit from having a more structured approach to operations as a result of transitioning to a four day working week. “It forces you to have a plan. It makes businesses act more transparently, have more visibility, and to communicate more effectively.”

And when businesses have transitioned to a four day working week, one of the biggest things employees benefit from is improved mental health. “Employees can spend more time with their family. They spend less time a week commuting. They come back on Monday feeling better rested.”

What can a four day work week offer UK startup businesses?

Having previously spoken to numerous startup business owners, including Nick Donnelly from WorkClub and Nick Coleman from Snaffling Pig, Startups knows how much it takes to start a successful business when balancing things like children and relationships. 

What we’ve learnt is that these days startup culture is more about ensuring employees have a healthy work/life balance than it is expecting people to be in the office by eight o’clock in the morning for a 12 hour day. 

However, this has to be balanced with the fact that starting a business is demanding, and often requires an all hands on deck approach that tests each team member’s ability to prioritise tasks and work efficiently

In the Henley Business School four day work week trial write up, Professor Karen Jansen Professor of Leadership and Change explains:

“21st century work no longer occurs within ‘normal’ business hours and demands on employees’ time are idiosyncratic, individualised, and are best managed by the individual. 

What is needed is a new mind-set for how work gets done and programs that provide all employees the ability to customise and manage their work to effectively accomplish organisational goals.”

Evidence also shows that offering perks like a four day work week help businesses attract a higher calibre of staff and retain star employees of all ages. 

It also helps to build a symbiotic relationship between the business and its employees, meaning employees want to work well because they’re being appreciated and valued by the company that they work for. 

When we asked business mentor Martin Norbury about the four day week as a perk for startup businesses, he addressed the concern that employees may not adopt the work ethic required for a four day work week to be feasible. 

“If a company treats its employees well, then the employees will treat the company well in return.”

Is the four day work week a solution to the end of the furlough scheme?

Earlier this month, Rishi Sunak unveiled the government’s new Job Support scheme, which aims to get people back to work and reduce the number of redundancies that could happen as a result of the end of the furlough scheme.

Under the new scheme – which is to last six months – employees must work at least 33% of their hours, which means introducing a four day working week could be one way that your business benefits from the Job Support scheme. 

If for example, you reduced the working hours of your employees from 35 down to 28 Monday to Thursday, employees would be working 80% of their usual working hours. 

While you’ll be responsible for paying 80% of the wage, the government will cover a third of the redundant hours and your business covers another third. 

The downside is that the salary remuneration you can expect to receive from the government through the scheme is capped at £697.92/month per employee. 

So an example calculation would look a bit like this:

100% of salary = £1,700 per month

Reduce hours to 80%

Pay 80% of the salary = £1,360

You also pay a third of the remaining salary = £113.33

And the government pays a third of the remaining salary = £113.33

By taking part in the scheme, businesses can trial a four day working week, while ensuring employees still receive at least 77% of their usual pay. 

Once the scheme ends, you could be in a position to introduce a permanent four day working week and afford to pay your staff 100% of their original salary, thanks to higher levels of productivity and efficiency.

Startup company BakedIn on introducing the four day work week

Bakedin Joe Munns

There are already plenty of startup businesses that operate with four day working weeks and we asked Joe Munns, founder of previous Startups 100 entrant Bakedin, about his experience of introducing it two years ago. 

Why did you believe a four day work week would be a viable option for Bakedin?

Before I started Bakedin, I was a software manager at IBM. During my last months there, I used an option to compress my hours into Monday to Thursday, which gave me an extra day to work on launching my business.

Bakedin started off with a traditional five day week, but it wasn’t long before I started questioning this “normal” option. Sitting down with the team, we floated a 37.5 hour week, running Monday to Thursday. 

Everyone was keen, and we scheduled a four week trial. When it finished, it was a unanimous “yes” to making it permanent. 

What positive impacts have you seen since introducing a four day work week? 

One of our company values is being family focussed, so a four day working week gives the team more quality time with friends and family. 

We all use our extra day off differently: spending time with our families, hitting the gym for a mega workout, running a side business, or just having a lazy day watching Netflix. 

When it comes to running a manufacturing business, a four day work week utilises our factory more effectively. 

A small crew works Tuesday to Friday, so we can keep our bagging machines running longer during busy times, and overtime during the day on Fridays is easier when needed, as opposed to a Saturday or Sunday. 

It’s a great retention tool too. We’re still a young company, so we can’t be the highest payers in our industry. This is a hugely valuable benefit and really boosts loyalty. 

What are some of the challenges you faced when introducing a four day working week?

I believe the four day work week is doable for most businesses, but it’s not without its challenges. Our customers still need looking after, so we offer overtime for customer support calls. 

Things like vacation calculations including bank holidays that don’t fall on “working” days can get tricky. And simple things like Friday deliveries get complicated.

It’s also a longer working day, so taking a proper lunch break is essential – we’re big believers that switching off for a block of time in the middle of the day helps the compressed working week be successful.  

We’ve invested in improving our R&R rooms at both our sites, with a comfortable, quiet place for people to be able to get away from their screens at lunchtime, helping them be as effective as possible during the day.

Do you have any words of wisdom for startups looking to introduce a four day work week?

Ask your team if they want it – remember, not everyone will see it as a positive. Then decide whether you offer it completely or provide some people with the option of a more traditional schedule.

Run a trial period. If everyone is open minded, you can try it for a while without changing any employment contracts or any administrative changes. What works for one business, might not necessarily be right for another. You’ll learn a lot about what’s important to you and your team.

Develop a plan to cover essential tasks. There may be some things (such as customer service) that make it look unfeasible at first glance. Engage your team on overcoming identified roadblocks you may be pleasantly surprised at how easy they are to resolve.

As a business leader, it’s your job to enable your people to be their best. This can sometimes mean making a sacrifice yourself.  To make it a success, I’d recommend being flexible, and ready to jump in on any issues that might arise on a Friday, for your team.

The four day work week: is it right for my startup business?

What we’ve learnt since researching the four day work week is that only you know whether it’s the right move for your business. If you were to reduce working hours to say 32 a week, will it affect your roadmap? Can you still achieve all the things you want to achieve in the required time-frame?

You also need to think about how you’re going to set your business apart to attract the highest calibre of staff. The perk of a four day work week has seen businesses retain more staff from all ages – from career climbing post-grads who tend to move companies to advance quicker, to parents who look to switch jobs to spend more time with the kids. 

Lastly, consider the health benefits of a four day work week. With staff coming back feeling refreshed on a Monday, you’ll be setting your business up for a more productive working week. Add that to the fact that staff who work four day weeks tend to take less time off sick, and there’s no reason why a four day working week couldn’t be possible for your business.

Aimee Bradshaw Senior Writer

Aimee is Startups' resident expert in business tech, products, and services. She loves a great story and enjoys chatting to the startups and small business community. Starting her own egg delivery business from the age of 12, she has a healthy respect for self-starters and local services.

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