No evidence four-day week has improved our productivity, says employer

Cobry says there has been significant improvements on wellbeing and work-life balance

An employer who introduced a four-day working week for his staff has hailed it a success but warned there is no evidence that it has led to improved productivity.

Tech company, Cobry, switched to a reduced-hour model 18 months ago as part of a wider package of progressive measures that includes a ‘remote-first’ policy, giving every employee the right to work from home permanently.

According to CEO Colin Bryce, the new working practices have proved highly popular with staff and are now a permanent part of the company’s employment culture.

Not all plane sailing

However, he said that the changes have not been seamless and that they have required significant monitoring and refinement to ensure they don’t negatively impact the company’s ability to operate efficiently.

The UK Government recently oversaw the world’s largest four-day working week trial involving 61 companies and 2,900 employees.

Glasgow-based Cobry – a dedicated Google software partner – introduced a four-day working week for its 16 staff in November 2021. At the same time, the number of hours employees are required to work was reduced from 35 to 31, with no loss of earnings.

The new system requires all staff to work four days out of five and allows them to take the remaining time off, either as a full day or by starting late or finishing early throughout the week.

Happy employees

Bryce said that while the changes have undoubtedly improved staff wellbeing and work-life balance, the jury is still unsure whether they have provided any commercial benefit for the company.

He said: “Whether it has cost the company money is really hard to assess because we couldn’t afford to pay for an expensive consultancy to come in and do a time and motion study, before and after. We just had to go for it and do some basic studies here and there to see how people were coping with it.

“I have read about companies who spent years evaluating the four-day week and then shied away from it. It’s a bit like introducing the weekend – you have to just believe that it’s worth doing and go for it.

“It has proved very popular with staff. The turkeys didn’t vote for Christmas. None of them was ever going to say ‘no, I think this is rubbish, let’s work six days’.” 

According to Bryce, the company has continued to grow since the changes were introduced, doubling its turnover in the past two years.

Jury’s out on increased productivity

But he added: “Would we have done better if we had not introduced it? I simply can’t say. It has definitely brought tension and stress at times, though, because it’s complicated trying to fit it around a team doing lots of different things. It can seem from the outside like utopia, but it needs a lot of feeding and watering to make it work well.”

The English trial, conducted between June and December 2022, was reviewed by researchers from Boston College, Cambridge University, University College, Dublin, Salford University and Vrije University in Brussels.

Of the 61 companies that took part, 56 opted to continue with a four-day week after it ended. ‘Before and after’ data showed that 39% of employees felt less stressed, and 71% had reduced levels of burnout. In contrast, anxiety, fatigue and sleep issues decreased, and mental and physical health improved.

Other key business metrics only saw marginal improvements. Companies’ revenue stayed broadly the same, rising by around 1.4% on average, weighted by company size across respondent organisations.

Improved retention

The number of staff leaving participating companies decreased significantly, dropping by 57% over the trial period.

According to Bryce, management of the four-day week is an ongoing process because staff have to be reminded routinely that the business’s operational needs must be honoured and respected.

He said: “It can be complicated if, for example, you need to organise a meeting with five specific people immediately. Sometimes you just have to accept that it can’t be done.

“We use all the latest tech to synchronise work, and we have a very innovative and adaptable team, but I would never tell anyone that it is easy.

“Of course, if something catastrophic were happening, I would have to insist that certain people attend, and I’m sure they would understand.

“It has been very tough at times, and it’s true to say that people need to be reminded more than they need to be told. To keep the four-day week, we need to keep optimising and maintaining high productivity levels, but that’s a hard thing to keep going.”

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