Top tips for embracing a four-day working week

By Marcin Durlak, below, Managing Partner, IMD Corporate

The pressure to embrace a four-day working week is certainly growing, with a recent survey from NatWest revealing that three-quarters of UK employers believe the four-day week will be the norm in the UK by 2030. However, for small businesses and startups operating with tight resources, the operational, logistical and productivity headaches which a four-day working week could present are understandably off-putting. Business owners are worried about trying to cram five days into four.

The question on many people’s lips is – is it a pipe-dream for SMEs to embrace the four-day working week which has been trialled successfully by a number of British companies recently?

The answer in brief, is no, it can be a success – but it requires careful planning, communication and trust. I work for an SME law firm and one of our departments introduced a four-day working week in December. I can’t see us switching back to five-days, but the change did require careful thought and consideration. Here are the top tips I’d give to any small businesses considering shortening their working week.

  1. Introduce it on a trial basis You don’t want to jump into this with both feet with no way out. It’s unlikely staff won’t enjoy an extra day off and it would be damaging to take this shorter working week away from staff after they’d got used to it, and assumed it was the new status quo. Clearly communicating you’re considering a four-day working week for a trial basis will help manage expectations if you decide to not go ahead in the long-term.
  2. Set clear KPIs Once a trial period has been established, it’s vitally important to decide how you will judge if the trial has been a success and to check productivity hasn’t taken a dip. There may well be some clear ways to track this in your business, but if not – worth considering setting some clear targets which are also communicated to staff. It’s been reported that a four-day week doesn’t just help improve productivity, but also staff retention and wellbeing – including a significant reduction in staff sick days and levels of burnout. Surveying staff before and after the trial period on these points can also provide a helpful yardstick. We decided to introduce a four-day week in our family department as the lawyers work in such an emotionally demanding area – supporting clients through some of the most stressful situations. We wanted to give them another day to decompress and improve their work life balance. We’ve definitely found this, with staff reporting lower levels of burnout.
  3. Communicating the changes As mentioned, it’s unlikely staff won’t sniff at an extra day off but you may find yourself facing some concerns and even opposition, especially if your staff have taxing workloads and worry about fitting five days’ worth of work into four. It’s important you communicate the shift to four-days carefully, and give all staff an opportunity to air any concerns. Likewise, it’s important to think about how you are going to communicate the change to customers and clients, who also could have some worries.
  4. Organise Key to the success of a four-day working week is solid organisation. Many businesses won’t shut for a day, but operate with a truncated workforce across the five days. This is how we organised it – we let people choose which day they wanted to take off and then ensured we’d have enough cover in the office across the week. Our close teamworking has certainly helped make this way of working a success – we seamlessly hand over work to one another. But there is also a level of flexibility. Especially as do court work – there will be days someone has swap their day off to accommodate a hearing, and there’s a great level of elasticity in the team to do that.
  5. Effective time management With effective time management, a four day working week isn’t about trying to cram five days’ worth of work into five, but using methods like the Stephen Covey Time Management Matrix to assess workload. Everyone has tasks that are neither important nor urgent and can just be eliminated, which will result in valuable time saving. Similarly, using tools and technology can also improve efficiencies within a team.

It will be interesting to see how quickly the four-day week catches on. It certainly seems like the world is moving in that direction, but the change may be slow. And it may well be more beneficial to certain businesses, especially those who are struggling to attract quality talent, to change to this way of working. However, don’t assume that it’s an impossibility for small businesses with tighter margins as, with the right planning and communication, it’s certainly possible and businesses can reap huge rewards.