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Posted by Sarah Brown on 21 Feb '23

Thinking outside the box - Recession: threat or opportunity

In this third blog about thriving in challenging times, whatever type of organisation you are, I want to think about what is the key to success in any organisation. Whether you are a one-woman band or a global corporation, a charity, social enterprise or business, the people involved are critical.

As is most evident in the public sector, people are looking for higher wages because of inflation, but this may be difficult for you to offer as costs rise and people buy less. And if you are a charity, you may be working on a fixed budget or impacted by increased need and lower donations.

In addition, you may also have problems recruiting because your wages are lower than other employers.

A potential solution - a four-day week

Today in the House of Commons, they discuss the world's most extensive trial of a four-day working week. The pilot scheme saw 61 companies across various sectors in the UK commit to reducing their working hours for all staff by 20 per cent for six months from June last year.

Around 2,900 employees from a range of industries took part. Eight firms were in the marketing and advertising sector, followed by seven in professional services, such as an asset management firm in Liverpool and an insurer in London. Five firms in the charity and non-profit sector took part, including Citizens Advice in Gateshead in Tyne and Wear.

There were also firms involved in the education, finance, healthcare and online retail sectors – and even a fish and chip shop in Norfolk.

Most firms chose to give all their staff Fridays off, while some said they could take Monday or Friday, and others opted for no common day off among staff. Crucially, the firms had to ensure there was no wage reduction for their employees.

"Major breakthrough" - the results

Here is a summary of the positive impacts:

  • Levels of anxiety, difficulty sleeping, and burnout decreased substantially, while more staff reported that balancing care responsibilities had become more manageable.
  • People were much more likely to stay in their jobs, despite the trial occurring amid the "great resignation" period, where workers have been quitting at record rates in search of greater flexibility. There was a 57 per cent drop in the number of staff leaving the participating companies compared with the same period the previous year.
  • Around 39 per cent of employees said they were less stressed compared with the start of the trial, and the number of sick days taken during the trial dropped by around two-thirds.
  • The results found that company revenue increased slightly by 1.4 per cent on average over the trial period and by a much higher 35 per cent compared to the same six-month period in 2021.
  • One consultancy firm, Tyler Grange, with 100 staff, also found an unexpected benefit: 21 per cent fewer car journeys undertaken by its employees in the six-month scheme.
  • For many, the benefits of a shorter working week outweighed any financial benefits, with 15 per cent saying no amount of money could tempt them back to working a five-day schedule.

Because of these benefits, 56 businesses (92%) have continued operating a four-day work week. Eighteen have made the policy a permanent change. Just three have paused the four-day week for the time being.

Culture change and practicalities

Obviously, some impacts on the culture and working styles need to be considered.

Several workers at one large company reported concerns about increasing workloads, finding their work intensified or needing more time to work through lengthy to-do lists in the time available.

The results also revealed that some managers and staff felt the focus on efficiency had made the workplace less friendly, which was particularly concerning for the creative companies involved.

One criticism of a four-day week is that certain industries will find it harder to transition to a shorter working week, particularly those in manufacturing or those which already operate on shift patterns.

Sector perspectives - charity

Louise, 49, is a consumer adviser at Citizen's Advice Gateshead, one of the organisations which signed up for the trial. She says the four-day week pilot allows her to be a more supportive partner and mum.

"Personally, the four-day week means I can have my own time and get my jobs done. I go to Scotland every other weekend, and my daughter is having an operation soon, so fitting her appointments in on a Thursday means I can go with her. This means I feel more relaxed and pass that benefit back to the charity.

"Workwise, we are in a good position as we have quite a big team, around 30 of us, and it hasn't affected our team performance or achievements negatively at all. In fact, all of our targets are being hit and each team member is currently helping 30 to 35 people on calls each day as an experienced adviser.

"Our clients are benefiting from an even higher quality of service, as we are all more refreshed. It is an intense role and you get tired by the end of week, so that extra day break allows you to be your best at all times."

Sector perspectives - business

The consultancy firm Tyler Grange is one of the companies which has made the switch permanent for its 100 staff. Its managing director, Simon Ursell, said that the firm was "delighted" to do so after a successful trial, which found that staff produced 102 per cent of their five-day workload in a shorter working week.

"The UK has an unhealthy culture where it is seen as a badge of honour to work all the time, yet our productivity levels are low and younger talent – as well as the brilliant talent that we want to attract at all levels of our business – doesn't want to be defined by a burnout life," he added.

Ursell said that staff had used their extra day to look after their families, see friends, and undertake personal projects.

Talent co-ordinator Allie Mason has written a book called The Autistic Guide to Adventure on her days off. Ecology associate Nathan Jenkinson has started a carpentry course. In contrast, senior ecologist Becky Freeman has used her Fridays off to undertake humanitarian work in Ukraine.

Sector Perspectives - public sector

While this pilot didn't include the public sector, a study in Iceland, conducted from 2015 to 2019, followed more than 2,500 government workers across diverse workplaces that went from 40-hour weeks to either 35 or 36-hour weeks with the same pay. The researchers found that most offices saw productivity either unchanged or improved. For example, workers in the Reykjavík accountancy department processed 6.5% more invoices once they started working fewer hours; at a police station, the shorter workweek didn't negatively affect the number of investigative cases closed.

In the Icelandic trials, efficiency was improved. For example, in some cases, managers said they replaced meetings completely with email. In contrast, others shortened meetings and only scheduled them before 15.00. Time spent for coffee breaks was slashed, staff were encouraged to run personal errands outside working hours, and shifts were adjusted to accommodate slow and busy periods.

And offices participating in the trial also identified workers' self-reported well-being and work-life balance levels either stayed the same or improved. Stress went down, workers reported having more time and energy to devote to hobbies, exercise, errands and friends. At the same time, parents said they had more time to devote to childcare.


The challenges of a recession are a chance to refresh our skills in running organisations. Rethinking the working week seems a good place to start. It may help address recruitment issues and boost staff morale without increasing the salary bill radically. In addition, many studies have shown that more positive work cultures make workers more engaged; workers in less positive environments are more likely to make errors, show reduced productivity or display absenteeism.

This pilot indicates that employees on reduced hours will work more efficiently to fit necessary tasks into the available time rather than putting in long, potentially less productive hours at their desks.

You can consider different models; everyone at a company takes off the same day, or Monday/Friday, or people choose the structure that works for them, like taking two afternoons off. Or reduce the workweek by a certain number of hours, from 40 to 32.

Now is a chance to do things differently; it would be great to hear from anybody who has implemented a reduction in hours or now thinks that they might.

Catch up on the previous blogs in this series:

Recession: threat or opportunity

Recession: threat or opportunity .. plan for success

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Tags: charity success public sector socent business