How will a 4-day week improve productivity?

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The 4-day week is something that as this article by The Mirror refers to has been trialled before and in different countries and every time it has shown to improve productivity.

This will no doubt work if it is adopted and the drivers that make this the case can be summarised as follows: With longer weekend, employees have more time for their personal life and interests which improves wellbeing, higher employee wellbeing creates more energy and innovation, and this in turn improves productivity. At the same time, as people have less time, they have less time to loose and therefore kind of ‘self-regulate’ by cutting to the chase, reducing lengths of meeting, and finding ways to get the job done in the time available.

But there are 4 caveats which are very pertinent to UK businesses:

  • Backdrop of overstretching: Over the years UK business has been reducing staff levels by adding to responsibilities of employees and not prioritising or driving real efficiency in process and work. This has created a culture of overstretching and long hours as the norm. Reducing to a 4 day week is counter this trend and does not mean doing 50+ hours in 4 days. To get the benefits of productivity from reduced hours, business need to look closely at priorities and how to make internal processes more efficient so the work can be done more productively.
  • Empowering people: This naturally follows, taking out wasteful activity requires creating an environment where employees, and managers alike, can question ‘why are we doing this?’ and encouraged to find ways to get the job done more efficiently. This has been the essence of Lean manufacturing which in the Far East is understood as a combination of culture, value, methods and ways of working. In the West we have tended to focus on the tools & methodologies and that only delivers partial benefits. The greatest productivity improvement is achieved by creating a culture of empowerment and self-improvement.
  • Speed of decision making: As employees get motivated to find different ways to get the job done faster, and even to higher standards, there is one continuous hurdle in business and one which is widespread in UK companies. Decisions often take what seems forever to be made. By the time they do, circumstances have changed. Minds are altered, and things go round again. This is done in pursuit of the best decision, which is a laudable objective, but in an environment of uncertainty and continuous change this is not an effective way forward. When we want to take a journey and there is fog, the decision we make is not to wait until the fog clears, but to move forward more cautiously and take stock of the conditions adjusting our route if needed. This way we move forward despite the odds. A decision to wait means we don’t get on with our objective. The right way forward is to make decisions with the best facts we can gather in a timeboxed fashion so we make them quickly and predictably. Then we should monitor how things go and adjust as needed. Failure to improve decision making will mean that more productive employees will end up waiting for decisions and motivation will soon plummet again.
  • You get what you measure: Finally, without updating the way we measure people and performance we will not achieve productivity gains. It is surprising how many businesses still focus on input measures (e.g. time spent on things) rather than output measures (e.g. deliverables completed). For a 4-day week to work in the long-term we must move to measuring outputs & outcomes rather than inputs & time worked.

The dynamics here are similar to the principles applied by those businesses which have already implemented unlimited holidays which have seen increased productivity and reduced absence.

About the Author
A Change and Programme Management professional with international experience in business transformation, from strategy definition to implementation and covering all dimensions of change: sourcing, contracts, policy, process, IT, infrastructure, behavioural, organisational. John is a Fellow of the Institute of Consulting, a Change Management Practitioner, and MBA qualified who has delivered change and integration of customer facing, commercial, operational and back office capabilities in various organisations.

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