The four-day week movement is increasing with employers like MRL Consulting keen to reap the benefits.
An international recruitment consultancy is the latest in a growing number of businesses converting to a four-day week on full pay.
MRL Consulting Group is doing a six-month trial to test the waters for a four-day week and embed new ways of working. The business has 121 employees based in offices in Hove in the UK and France and Germany.
David Stone, its chief executive, says he first started thinking about moving to a four-day week four years ago when he read a blog post by a friend he used to work with who had reduced his business’ hours. “I thought ‘wow’. What a game changer,” he says. It wasn’t the right time for him to make similar changes however, so he parked the idea.
A few months ago the manager of his German office put forward the idea, expecting David to say no. He didn’t. “I said it was a brilliant idea. Let’s look at it,” he says. He did some research and spoke to his ex-colleague about what had gone right and what had gone wrong when he made the change to a reduced working week.
The more David researched the more positive reasons he found, for instance, studies showing the impact on mental health, work life balance, happiness levels, productivity and efficiency. “It seemed a win win win,” he says.
From a personal point of view, he wondered what he would do with an extra day a week. He was spending his weekends ferrying his five children around. “I get to Sunday evening and my weekend hasn’t even started,” he says. “I started thinking about what I could do with more time. I could, for instance, go for lunch with my wife on a Friday so we can catch up on life without being interrupted. From a selfish point of view a four-day week seems not far off being idyllic.”
He thought too about what impact it might have on employees, especially those with family responsibilities. “The most important things to people are time and work life balance,” he says. Last year he brought in a one-month sabbatical for employees with five years’ service and a policy of escalating holiday allowance which rises for each year they work. Nevertheless, he realised that people wanted greater work life balance than that.
David speaks candidly about missing out on a lot of his older children’s lives. They are now aged 26 and 22 and he says he missed every Nativity play, every sports day and every parents evening. “I was working so hard to build the business at the time. It is now a massive regret and I am making sure with my three younger children [aged 9-14] that I do do those things. I have built a good quality of life for my family, but from a personal parenting point of view I feel ashamed and guilty. I don’t want my colleagues to make the same mistakes that I did,” he says.
He adds that companies are increasingly talking about mental health, but he believes videos about counselling and so forth are just “sticking plasters after the event”. “Studies show four-day weeks decrease mental stress. That is one goal saved,” he says.
During the trial David plans to closely monitor performance, absenteeism and other data. His talks with his former colleague suggested there could be some challenges, particularly with younger workers who might not have the same incentive as those with family responsibilities to adapt to getting the same amount of work done in a shorter working week. He adds that it would be “fatal” if people start treating Thursday afternoons like Friday afternoons.
He has been clear about expectations around targets, which will remain the same, and has been keen to ensure everyone is on board. “It’s about the kind of peak efficiency you see before a vacation, cutting out gormless scrolling through social media and so on,” he says. He cites research showing productivity can be boosted by between 20-30% by reducing the working week and says he will be happy with just a 20% boost which will ensure productivity doesn’t fall on current five-day-week levels.
David has been upfront about his plans with his clients and has written to every client around the world, telling them why the company is doing the trial and asked them to contact him if they have any concerns. In any event, he says recruitment is the kind of industry where people regularly check their phones out of hours and there are not many urgent calls on a Friday. It suits the sector well.
The trial has got a lot of attention and the response from clients has been positive. The main questions he gets asked are from HR people who are keen to know how it goes. He says: “This idea is very much on trend now and the service sector is paid by results. Clients don’t care how you work as long as you get results.”