Since the pandemic more and more small businesses have been re-evaluating the way that they work. Employee expectations have also increased in relation to work-life balance and personal wellbeing, so many small businesses have started trialling a four-day work week.

Inevitably, the current cost of living crisis has pushed pay back up the agenda, but these days, jobseekers are also often seeking hybrid working and a focus on wellbeing, rather than just the highest possible pay cheque.

As a small business owner, we’re sure you’d also like to achieve better work-life balance for yourself. But we understand that, to do so, you need to attract and retain the best people and focus on productivity rather than just time spent in the office.

Read on to discover more whether a four-day working week could deliver all this for your business.

What is the four-day work week?

A four-day work week is exactly what it sounds like. Rather than the traditional office-based five days in and two days off at the weekend, people work just four days with three days off. It doesn’t have to be a Monday or Friday off it could be a different day off in the week.

It is important to remember, however, that it is not simply “compressed” hours that we are talking about here. If your standard working week is 35 hours employees would be expected to work around 28 hours over the four days not just cram 35 hours into 4 working days. You could agree slightly higher hours if that made sense for operational reasons.  The employee will benefit from a long weekend or a different day off in the week without losing out on pay.

A Global Movement

You may have already seen online that several countries including Iceland, Canada, Ireland, and the US have already run successful four-day week pilot schemes. Academics are now studying these and producing research reports on how this way of working can achieve the positive impact on employee wellbeing.

These pilots have all been run on 100% pay for 80% hours for 100% productivity, with the aim to reduce employee burnout by reducing overall working hours not just working more hours across the week to have a three-day weekend or different day off in the week.

Increased Productivity and Wellbeing

At the beginning of the trial, it is important to be clear about expectations so that employees know that they can only keep the same pay for the reduced hours if they deliver the same level of output and productivity. It isn’t about you cutting tasks out of their workloads to reflect the reduced hours. It will be about working together to find ways to be more efficient and productive.

The thought process behind this is that people will work more productively and with better focus if they are refreshed and have more time to spend on life outside work. The idea is that greater work life balance will help them bring more energy to their working time.

Another bonus is that it will also reduce energy consumption in the long run and with less commuting, you will also be helping the planet! For working parents, it may also help save on childcare costs.

UK employers take part in official trials

The first official UK trial of the four-day work week has already begun. It started in June 2022 and is due to run for 6 months. 70 companies are taking part and 3330 employees are involved. These companies range from professional services to a fish and chip shop.

The trial is supported by “four-day week” in partnership with the Think Tank Autonomy and leading universities. More information can be found on the website.

It is likely that further trials will run when this one has finished.

At citrus HR we have been advising customers who had already started doing this before this official trial began. If it is something you are considering, we suggest that you read up on the official trials but if you can’t get on one and still want to have a go at trying it out……

Here are our 7 top tips to consider if this is something you want to try out in your small business.

  1. Set a reasonable Trial Period and don’t commit permanently at the outset.

We recommend that you consider a trial of at least 6 months to evaluate how it is working for you as a business before making a permanent change to employee contracts.

  1. Think about your individual business needs from a service delivery point of view.

If you are customer facing or providing a five-day a week service currently, you will not be able to simply close on a Friday or a Monday to give everyone the same three-day weekend.

You could think about maybe splitting employees into teams with the same pattern to ensure that all the correct people are working when you need them to be. We find that some customers have a team where people work Tuesday to Friday and another team where people work Monday to Thursday.

Other ways may work better for you, or you may have a business that allows individuals much more flexibility. It is also possible for employees to have a mid-week day off rather than a Monday or Friday.

  1. Don’t forget your existing part time staff

You will need to give some thought as to how they can also benefit from a reduction in the days / hours that they work in return for achieving the same level of productivity.

This can be tricky, and you do need to watch out for any feelings that they are being treated unfairly. You can’t necessarily reduce a two-day a week working pattern by 20%, and the role still be viable, but you can discuss this with the employee.

Alternatively, where it isn’t possible to reduce the hours, you could consider changing the way you calculate the part timers pay so they benefit from the shorter working week in terms of their pay.  If you currently work out the part time salary using the pay for full timers based on 35 hours, if the new full-time hours were 28 you would use this to work out the part time salary.

Let’s assume a full-time salary based on 28 hours equates to a salary of £30,000. If James has a contract for 14 hours and you can’t reduce the time, he spends at work you could ensure he doesn’t miss out by working out his pay based on full time hours being 28 rather than 35.  The prorated salary for 14 hours a week based on full time hours being 35 is £12,000, however, the pro-rated salary based on full time hours being 28 is £15,000, so this would be a £3,000 pay increase for James over the year.

  1. Managing Holiday

You also will need to consider how to handle requests for holiday during the trial period.

Would you need to limit how many people have holiday at a particular time, and would the new pattern work with any existing holiday commitments?

In terms of holiday allowances, you can ask staff to agree to a temporary reduction in holiday to reflect the fact that, if they are now taking a week off, they only need to book four days holiday not five.

In short, for a standard five-day a week full timer their holiday entitlement would reduce to the pro-rated holiday allowance for someone working four days a week.

  1. Managing Sick Pay

If you offer over and above statutory sick pay you will also need to consider how this works so that you don’t accidentally increase entitlement.

You may need to ask staff to agree to a temporary pro-rated reduction in entitlement, in the same way you do for holiday allowances.  

  1. Think about how you will measure the impact of the trial

What would good productivity and performance look like and what would stop you making the trial permanent? And how you can assess whether it has had a positive impact on employee wellbeing?

Areas to look at here would include

  • Whether there has been any reduction in staff sickness absence levels,
  • Whether you have noticed an improvement in employee retention, and
  • If applicable, whether it has had a positive impact on recruitment.

Staff surveys can be a good way of seeking feedback from your people about this and can give you the insights you need to make an informed decision for your business.

  1. Reflect on the trial

Seek employee feedback on any barriers they have come across. If all has gone well look at rolling this out on a permanent basis and making the required changes to contracts of employment.

Alternatively, you may find that more questions have arisen and you may want to extend the trial period to see if you can iron out any of these issues.

Final Thoughts

The feedback from employers that have trialled this is largely positive. It could be a win win for your people and improve your business performance.  It might not work for everyone but if you are curious and think it might work, you may benefit from, at least discussing how to implement a trial of , the four-day work week in your small business.  Even if you trial it and it doesn’t work your employees will see that you have tried and you may all learn better ways of doing things.

This post was written by citrusHR who are an exhibitor on the HRTech247 HCM – Full Platform and Employee Engagement floors. You can visit their HRTech247 exhibition stand here.