Published On: Tue, Apr 25th, 2023

Is a four-day working week such a pipe dream?

Changing the way we work has been a hot topic over the last few months. It fires up debate and often splits opinion into three distinct camps: no change; hybrid change and full change. The recent release of the findings from the UK Four Day Week Pilot made for fascinating reading. Many in the manufacturing sector were very scathing, dismissing it as ‘impractical’ for their own businesses. The attempt to change from the tried and trusted methods of work reminded me of an idea presented to a large fabricator by a highly respected machinery professional a few years ago. He envisaged the fabricator would re-shape his production model, and focus each day on manufacturing products for a single customer. He would have five large customers who in-turn would supply installers – basically operating as distributors. The economies of scale were impressive. It represented a new way of thinking. Although it was never bought to market, the idea was almost revolutionary but perhaps a little too risky against the status quo.

The four-day week again could be deemed ‘risky’, however when you delve into the detail and find examples of how manufacturing companies and firms involved in the RMI market have benefited, you start to open your eyes to a new way of operating. The four-day week followed five paths for the 61 companies involved. Fifth day stoppage: The company shuts down operations for one additional day per week. Staggered: Staff take alternating days off: For example, the staff may be divided into two teams, with one team taking Mondays off, and the other taking Fridays off. This was a popular choice in companies where five-day coverage was important. Decentralised: Different departments operate on different work patterns, possibly resulting in a mixture of the two previous models. This may also incorporate other arrangements, such as some staff working a four-day equivalent over five shorter working days. Annualised: staff work a 32 hour average working week, calculated on the scale of a year. Conditional: Staff entitlement to the four-day week is tied to ongoing performance monitoring. Seniors in the company may decide to temporarily suspend the four-day week for certain departments or individuals, if there is evidence that staff are failing to meet agreed performance targets. 

Two examples of firms not too dissimilar from ones operating in the fenestration sector were highlighted in the findings. A housing association with approximately 250 employees with many functions, including building maintenance, asked each department to take the lead in devising a four-day week model fit for its own purposes. Time-saving ideas were generated in the preparatory workshops while the trades staff reduced their travel time to and from the building supplier by having more foresight about what materials are needed and finding better ways to organise their van. They also now feel comfortable going home early when there is less to do. The office teams are automating certain processes and redesigning others to involve fewer personnel.

The example of a manufacturing company and their experience with the four day week was fascinating as well. The business owner believed that “if you can do this in a small production environment, it demonstrates that the five-day week is something that could have been gotten rid of a long time ago.” The company adopted a staggered four-day week model in order to maintain production over 5 days. The plan was to split the production team into two groups, with one taking Mondays off and the others taking Fridays (swapping each month). There was a significant preparation period before the pilot. As part of the lead-in, they studied their manufacturing process closely, breaking down the tasks involved, searching for new efficiencies, and developing a new set of production targets. A phrase that was heard in a lot of conversations with staff was ‘mucking in’. On days where not everyone was present, staff could be required to jump in on tasks that may have previously been outside their remit. The staff celebrated the sharing of skills and sense of collective effort this involved. The production manager said ‘the whole team now does what the manager does’, by forecasting busy periods and identifying what needs attention. When asked whether he was worried about work becoming more intense, he said they were busier, but less stressed, adding: “Being busy doesn’t make you stressed, being out of control is what makes you stressed… We want to be more busy, less stressed. I don’t like being bored at work, I like it when there’s an atmosphere of things happening.” 

92% of the firms taking part in the trial have changed to a four-day working week. It’s pioneering and when you also consider the improved wellbeing for staff, it is a concept that needs serious consideration. The examples of the housing association and the manufacturing firm demonstrate that the staggered and decentralised approaches offer a possible pathway to a four-day week in our own industry. 

John CowieEditor