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Rich Leigh is used to people suggesting moving his business, Radioactive PR, to a four-day week on full pay was a gimmick. He points out, however, that if it was it was the most stressful way to get a bit of PR.
“For all the PR we have got, it does not outweigh the stress of telling all our clients. We are a Gloucester-based agency competing with predominantly London-based peers at the same rates.
They could have chosen to go elsewhere if we had not communicated what we were dong properly,” he says, recalling the nerve-wracking experience of getting wider buy-in for the change. “There are easier ways to get a bit of PR,” he states, “and in any event it would still have been the right move even if there had been no media interest.”
The business moved permanently to a four-day week in August after a six-week trial. For a four-year-old business it has now been working this way for quite a long time comparatively, says Leigh.
He kept a close eye on how the trial went. Feedback surveys for both staff and clients showed there was no detrimental impact on business and that all staff were happier as a result.
During the trial, the agency won five new clients across different sectors and every staff member said they had enjoyed a better work-life balance and that they felt ‘more relaxed at home as a result of the trial’.
All the company’s clients who gave feedback said they would be comfortable with the agency incorporating the four-day work week beyond the trial.
The move was motivated by Leigh questioning the amount of time he was spending at work and by a desire to do more outside work, as well as giving himself time to think about the business’ direction and other areas it can move into, something he struggles with as a sole founder. He says: “I think we define ourselves too much by what we do.
I wanted time to be more creative. I always have other projects on the go. I wrote a PR book and I want to write fiction. I wanted to get myself into a position where I had some time in the week to do those things and I thought if I am doing that for myself, why not for everyone else?”
He considered moving from a 4pm close on Fridays to a half day, but then started thinking why businesses have to operate on a five-day-a-week model.
He looked at other companies who were questioning the traditional model too. Some who had reduced to four days were simply trying to compress five days into four, creating more stress for employees.
Leigh didn’t want that model. He figured his employees were working at 80% capacity. If he could get them to 85% capacity, they would still have some spare time, but would be more refreshed for having Fridays off.
The main person who would lose out, he reckoned, was him because he would have to hire new people sooner if work demands increased.
Since the trial he continues to look closely at the financials and he is clear that he would not have gone ahead after the pilot if it had damaged business. So far turnover margins are positive and the business is continuing the growth trajectory it was on before the change to the four-day week.
Leigh admits that those margins have been lowered “as expected” because the agency had to hire another senior person earlier that it would have to alleviate pressures on another senior worker who was working nearer to capacity than preferred, but he believes that the change of hours is the right thing to do and has increased staff motivation.
He is not, however, surprised by the cynicism that greeted the announcement and says the same was said about the move to a five-day 9-5 model 100 years ago. “I am not advocating for all businesses to do this,” he says, “but it works for us and there are many companies in the UK are in the service sector that look a lot like us.”
Leigh says the policy is a good retention tool and he hopes it will help Radioactive PR to attract and retain the best people. It has also brought some new clients. “PR is all about change and we have demonstrated that we are prepared to change and demonstrate new ways of working,” he says.
“We are walking the talk and doing something that is quite risky. Some clients like that. It matches our current times. Others are interested as long as it works.”
Leigh says Friday was usually reserved for reporting and tended to be a quieter day. Now it is treated similar to a weekend where there is emergency cover if something big occurs. Reporting is becoming less time-consuming due to technological advances.
“It’s a completely different landscape than even five years ago due to technology,” says Leigh. “So why are we still working like it’s the 1970s? Is it because it is the way things have always been done that change terrifies people? People are already working differently. It is not about working harder; it is about whether we can work smarter.”
Leigh doesn’t think the standard working week should be reduced for everyone through legislation because he thinks different businesses need different forms of flexibility. However, he thinks employers should continue to experiment with flexible working. It was this openness to change and pioneering role that led to Radioactive PR being given this year’s workingmums.co.uk Top Employer Award for SMEs.
Radioactive PR employs 11 people and the average age of the office is 27. All employees work full time [four days a week]. They can work remotely as and when they need to, but most choose to work in the office.
Leigh thinks a move to remote working would have been harder for the business because PR is about problem-solving and sharing information. “We often sit down together to work through a problem,” he says, but he adds that he is open to more remote working.
In addition to the four-day week, Radioactive PR – unusually for an SME – also offers enhanced maternity leave – full pay – for 12 weeks, 50% pay for 16 weeks and then SMP for 11 weeks and Leigh sees it as a key retention tool.
“If people get used to getting the statutory rate they get used to making do on less. We want to give people every reason to come back,” he says. This includes gradual returns and KIT days to ease people back into the workplace.
Everyone is on a Whatsapp group so they can stay in touch if they want to.
“It is in the business’ interest that people do not come back feeling stressed out and can ease back in at their own pace,” he says.
Leigh, a dad of three who left his previous job because he wanted a greater work life balance, is also keen to create a family friendly workplace. He sometimes brings his own kids into work and is open to others doing this if they have a childcare crisis, such as during school holidays.
The business is also committed to staff development, monitors this closely and has a defined quarterly budget for both internal and external training. “It is important that career progression is encouraged for everyone,” says Leigh. Budget is also available for books and other material that will enhance a person’s work.
One area the company emphasises is mental health. Leigh says the PR industry is high-pressured with potential unsociable hours, tight deadlines and external pressures from both clients and the media.
Around one in six PR professionals reported living with a mental health problem in the 2018 State of the Industry report – an increase of 10% from the 2017 report.
To combat this, Radioactive PR has an open-door policy, where employees can request an immediate 1-2-1 with a member of the senior team at any time of day. To get ahead of any potential problems, Leigh says he sits down with each employee for an informal catch-up at least once a month.
Although he is very happy with the Workingmums.co.uk Award, Leigh is keen to keep improving and to learn about what other SMEs are doing to ensure their employees have the right work environment to fulfill their potential.