Always-on technology means the lines between work and leisure are blurring, turning your 9-to-5 into a 24/7 job. We spoke to directors embracing a 4 day work week to see if this could be the solution.
Figures show that in 2002, fewer than 10% of employees checked work emails out of office hours. Nowadays, it’s more like 50%, and rising.
Not only are we always switched on, but there’s also evidence to suggest that we’re more productive working a shorter week – some studies have proposed Tuesday-Thursday as ideal. But would that work for accountants, and their clients?
Flexi-time – the answer to practical working?
Rezaul Hoque is Director at Assurance Accountancy, a practice that has been trialling flexi-time recently. “We took on an AAT apprentice two years ago and he was commuting an hour or so each way to get here. We discussed how we could make work practices more comfortable for him, but also productive for us. A four-day week was what we eventually settled on.”
This approach is, perhaps surprisingly in today’s technology-led world, still relatively innovative. But the benefits are numerous.
“It creates loyalty,” Hoque says. “We’ve invested a lot of time and effort into our staff – he could go at any time, and we don’t want that to happen. Instead, he’s happy working here, enjoys the bond with the team, and we consciously took a step that would avoid him going to another employer.”
Key takeaway: Flexible working can be a valuable tool to hold on to valuable staff, but you do need the technology in place to make it work.
Implementing a culture change
“It’s certainly easier for a start-up to create a four-day week [from day one], rather than an established company changing their practices,” says Gwilym Davies, Director at Diagnostax, a software provider to tax advisory firms.
If you have a nucleus of people who can lead the charge, Davies says, it might succeed. “But if you can’t facilitate it, or don’t have the technology in place, it’s unlikely to work.”
As a business owner, Davies was working round the clock initially, so a shift down to 5 days a week was a big adjustment. It forced him to take a hard look at where he was spending his time. But now he spends more time doing the work he needs to do and is still hitting his targets;
If you are feeling sceptical at this point, look across the Channel to France, where the Government has recently made it illegal to expect workers to respond to emails outside working hours. Yet, the average French worker has achieved greater productivity by the end of Thursday than the UK counterpart does in a full week.
Key takeaway: More established companies may need to work on their culture before flexi-time or a four day week become feasible.
Attract more people to your company
More broadly, a four-day week could lead to wider talent acquisition. Good people who might otherwise be nearing retirement will be happier to stay on if they know the time commitment is reduced.
“It’s better for morale,” Hoque argues. “Both my co-director and myself are in effect now working a four-day week.”
“There are a lot of distractions in the office,” Hoque says. “As long as you know you can trust the employee, they will be more productive if they don’t have to be there all the time.”
“If you manage your diary, get the tasks done and your clients are kept informed, there should be no problem.”
Key takeaways: Not only will you broaden your talent pool, but the added morale boost for current employees can make a massive difference. So long as you trust your team, and the emphasis is on the outputs, this could be a win for you.
“It’s really helped me,” says Sahel Ahmed, Hoque’s apprentice. “I’m more focused when in the office, and I have better work-life balance at home. Commuting is tiring; having flexible solutions like this makes you more productive.”
Ahmed is currently completing AAT Level 4. “I have enough time now to commit to my studies because our workplace practices are more sympathetic.”
As a result, his employer says, “his demeanour has become more bright and sparkly, he’s rested, and has made the effort to understand the challenges he faces and overcome them.”
Crucially for the company director, Hoque, “productivity has gone up. My co-director was perhaps sceptical when we introduced this, but I thought – the worse that can happen is that we reverse it. I felt it would work, and it has.”
Focusing on outputs rather than inputs
There are, of course, a few negatives to moving to a four-day week. “Will the right person be available to the right client at the right time?” says Davies. “Do you pay employees for the full five days but only expect them to work four? Or do you reach a mutually agreeable compromise?”
And such organisational changes are not for everyone. “But – if you focus on outputs, rather than inputs, you might be surprised.”
After all, as Rezaul Hoque adds, “if it doesn’t work out – you can always go back to the way you were before. You won’t ultimately lose anything by trying the experiment.”
“The advantages are multiple,” Davies concludes. “Productivity, morale, teamwork, recruitment advantages, flexible working and the encouragement of autonomy – we want to empower people who have positive values, and create that positive culture. A four-day week could be a huge switch towards that.”
The hardest thing for any business is to get hold of good people. “Once you’ve got them – you want to keep them.”
Studies have shown a reduced work week can have a hugely positive impact on a business; it could be the new way of working. We spoke to people actually working in this way and they were all in agreement; for them, the benefits outweigh the potential negatives.
You will need the right culture and technology in place to support flexible working, but it could be the breath of fresh air your business needs.
For more on boosting productivity:
- Time to log off – why a digital detox could be exactly what you need
- How to stay productive throughout the day
- 6 apps to help boost productivity and avoid procrastination
- Can ambient noise increase your productivity?
Mark Blayney Stuart is Business Journalist of the Year, Wales Media Awards 2017 and Former Head of Research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing.