A long weekend every weekend?


The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) went into overdrive because of the pandemic, and it shifted the world of work as we knew it. As business leaders, we must predict and assess the impact of technology on our businesses from the supply chain through to customer satisfaction. Integral to this assessment, is the people factor and how we can best enable our teams to deliver. Businesses and their employees were thrown overnight into online and work-from-home solutions in response to lockdowns. A year later, this is the norm, and it begs the question, ‘so what is the best way going forward?’  As we celebrate Workers Day, let’s consider what our employees want from the new normal.

Social media and the news are full of the great debate: Back to the office, or a hybrid, or work from home? Part and parcel of this debate is, what exactly should we be managing and what makes sense for the business and our employees? Inevitably, there is a growing rejection of time-based management to a focus on deliverables or outputs. March and April in South Africa are known for the many public holidays affording us the well-loved long weekend. But what if we use this reset brought about by the pandemic and the 4IR to challenge the holy cow that is the 5-day week?

According to The Workforce Institute, 75% of employees would prefer to have a shorter workweek.

A 4-day work week may seem like a radical idea, but the concept of reduced hours is not all that new, in fact, the history of labour worldwide has seen a gradual reduction in the number of hours worked. In the late 19th century, a factory worker in the USA worked an average of 100 hours a week. By the mid-20th century, this had dropped to 40 hours a week. (40 hours is the SA norm if lunchtimes are excluded.)

Would productivity slump? Would you lose customers?

Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand based company conducted a trial study of a 4-day work week. Not only did employees maintain the same productivity level, but they also showed improvements in job satisfaction, teamwork, work/life balance and company loyalty. Employee stress levels dropped significantly.

It is significant to note that some of the world’s most productive countries, such as Norway, Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands, have an average work week of only 27 hours.

With the rapid evolution of technology, the assumption that longer hours equal increased productivity does not necessarily ring true.

How do you know if a four-day week will work for your business?

To help you decide, here are some pros and cons.

Benefits for employees

  • Reduced stress levels:  Having an extra day to recharge can help to alleviate job-related pressures. It also allows the employee to schedule personal admin and appointments so that they are not juggling personal and work demands.
  • Better work-life balance:  Time to spend with family and friends, as well as to for hobbies, sport and leisure activities.
  • Increased happiness and motivation: Feeling cared for, valued and appreciated leads to greater effort and job satisfaction.
  • Reduced expenditure on the daily commute.
  • Improved health and well-being.
  • Improved gender equality: Childcare still falls disproportionately on women, but an extra day off a week allows this burden to be shared and planned.

Benefits for employers

  • Increased productivity: most trials have reported an increase in productivity or that productivity remained the same… but with fewer hours worked. Microsoft Japan noted a 40% increase in productivity.
  • Attract and keep better workers: Employees, especially the younger generation, value flexibility and will regard your business as an employer of choice.
  • Less absenteeism and presenteeism: personal needs can be addressed on the extra day off, hence employees are less likely to abuse the time they are at work. In addition, less stressed and happier people are healthier.
  • Improved loyalty and commitment: Employees are more likely to reach deadlines and practice good time management because they value the extra day off so much.
  • Reduced running costs because the physical office will be closed 1 extra day a week.

Possible disadvantages

  • The temptation will be for business owners to still expect 40 hours a week i.e., a 10-hour day. This is not the intention of the 4-day week. Most people will acknowledge that many hours are wasted at work, whether it is smoke breaks, tea breaks, time spent on social media or addressing personal needs. (A recent British survey found that workers are productive for just under 3 hours in a day.) The key to a successful 4-day implementation is disciplined time management. The working day should not lengthen automatically.
  • Certain industries are not suited to a shorter week, for instance, hospitality and transport services.
  • Sales and customer service constraints may make it difficult for small businesses to shorten the workweek. Customer expectations of 24/7 online service may be addressed by AI and chatbots, but this is a significant cost barrier for small businesses. The solution may be inflexible scheduling to allow for customer-facing service when it is needed.
  • It requires a disciplined, responsible and self-motivated team culture.

This is a big experiment for any company and needs to be well thought out.

A Possible Roadmap to Implementation

  1. Introduce the idea of a shorter workweek and openly discuss the pros and cons with your employees.
  2. Reassure your staff that there will not be any reduction in salary or benefits. Ensure that you remain compliant with labour legislation.
  3. Be transparent about productivity concerns and the need for time management.
  4. Give your employees time to think about how they can work differently and encourage them to come up with their own measures of productivity.
  5. Ask for input on how to have 4-days or flexible hours, while still meeting customer and business needs.
  6. Begin with a trial and measure productivity, employee, and customer satisfaction before, during, and after the trial.
  7. Share the results with your staff and involve them in tweaks or decisions to continue or not.
  8. Communicate with suppliers and customers, to manage expectations.
  9. Establish clear team and personal goals and/or deliverables.  
  10. Support your staff with time management training and ongoing coaching.

 If you can balance increased employee satisfaction with improved productivity and a positive customer experience… today would be a good day to start!

Whether or not the 4-day week is right for your business, the 4IR is going to bring changes that we cannot even imagine. Being open to new ways of doing things and flexibility are essential traits for business owners. Be prepared to ask, ‘what if?’

If you have already introduced the permanent long weekend or you are embarking on the journey – we would love to hear about your experiences in the comments section below.

By Janet Askew

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