A four-day work week can boost productivity – and here’s how to do it

Rupert Morrison, CEO, OrgVue
- Leadership - Dec 19, 2019

Rupert Morrison, CEO, OrgVue, shares with Business Chief how a four-day work week can improve productivity, not decrease it.

Moving to a four-day work week seems counterintuitive in an economy that’s moving faster than ever, a world with increased customer expectations, and a market looking for businesses that can keep up. 

In many cases, the very idea that your staff can work fewer hours with no loss of productivity or revenue will fall on deaf ears. But today it’s a real possibility – and HR and technology are your best allies in the process.

There are already real-world examples of shorter working weeks improving business results, including a test in Japan by Microsoft that found a four-day week boosted productivity by 40%.

So let’s stop talking about ‘why’ it can’t be done and start talking about ‘how’ you could do it.

Making the case for a four-day week

The idea of a four-day work week has been bouncing around for decades. But the prospect of paying staff for five days when they only work four is likely to induce either anxiety or indignation around the boardroom table – even though recent research suggests that a shorter work week could help the UK’s economy.

Workers in the UK work longer hours than those in Germany, but productivity in the UK is lower. Workers in Mexico and Greece put in even more hours than their counterparts in the UK and their productivity is lower than the UK’s. So clearly productivity is about more than hours clocked.

The first challenge to achieving a four-day week is determining how it will be paid for. A CEO should be as familiar with how effectively and productively their staff is deployed as they are with the firm’s financial circumstances. But a CEO has a CFO at their right hand, providing Financial Planning and Analysis (FP&A). Making a four-day week work will need equally powerful support from HR.

Just how much untapped productivity is there in a typical workforce?  

Research in the US found that during an eight-hour workday the average worker is only productive for two hours and 53 minutes. That’s just 36% productivity! 

In the UK, research we conducted with the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) found that large companies (1,000 staff) are leaving £10.4 billion on the table because of poor people planning. So there are huge gains waiting to be made.

The next challenge is getting a clear and current view of how productive employees are in the current business structure. The HR ally, whether the title is chief human resource officer, HR director or something else, needs the tools to measure and understand how staff are working. That’s where Organisational Planning and Analysis (OP&A) enters the picture.

Better planning leads to better results

If your company can be as productive as it is with a five-day week while workers only come in for four days, why shouldn’t they be paid for five days? They’re effectively doing five days’ worth of work. They’d be happier and have a better work life balance. You want staff happy and productive. But you’ve got a business to run – you can’t afford that, right? 

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Well, yes you can

Your workforce data is the key to improving productivity and profit per worker. For decades, HR has been marginalised and seen as a cost centre that was necessary to hire and manage employees. 

But if HR is struggling to manage the workforce with spreadsheets that groan under their own weight, that data is probably inaccessible. However, with effective OP&A tools for data collection and analysis, HR can find what’s working and what needs improvement.

But OP&A is a strategic planning activity as well. It’s like Financial Planning and Analysis (FP&A) for an organisation’s human capital. It can show you past activity and results, help model scenarios and help align the talent in a company with the needs of the company. 

Just as FP&A can find duplication of effort or inefficient use of financial resources, OP&A can help identify and reallocate people so they get a more meaningful work experience and the company gets higher value from them.

Organisational Planning and Analysis is a function of HR, of course, but it can do more than show why – or why not – a four-day week is viable for a business. When the data is combined with those from FP&A and the CEO, CFO and CHRO work together, many possibilities can be modelled, tested and analysed. 

Real-world examples for the benefits of a four-day week exist – but a great leader works from data, not anecdotes.

Instituting a four-day week while paying staff for five days is still likely to be a hard sell in many boardrooms. ‘Everybody knows’ that’s a bad idea. 

However, a visionary leader who fosters collaboration between their HR and finance teams, and integrates OP&A and FP&A results can make a strong case. Convincing the board that a four-day week can invigorate productivity will require hard data, a clear plan and a lot of work. 

Fortunately, with the next generation of OP&A, the tools to get it done are at hand. 

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