Risks & Costs
So if they are the benefits, what are the risks or the potential costs?
Years ago, prior to COVID, I spoke with someone at a conference whose business had introduced a four-day work week. My first question was, can it work if the roles aren’t well defined around outcomes? The same question has come up over the pandemic, with people needing to work from home.
That’s because we often assume that a role is being done because the person is doing a particular number of hours. Going into a four-day work week challenges that assumption. Suddenly, we’re not hiring people to do a number of hours, we’re hiring them to deliver a number of outcomes.
‘we often assume that a role is being done because the person is doing a particular number of hours’
The problem with this is that our industrial relations system is set up to track hours – I work so many hours, I get paid X amount. If you have a workforce, which is mainly covered by an Award, it may be more difficult to move to an outcomes-based approach. You will need to respect the constraints of the Award and potentially get legal advice about how to make it work. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it may be a little bit more difficult.
Even without the ‘Awards’ issue, most businesses I come across do not have roles defined around outcomes. Often there’s a little bit of work to do in defining exactly what you need that role to deliver. Once you’ve done that, it doesn’t matter whether the person delivers it in 10 hours, or 20 hours, or 30 hours. You just need that outcome delivered.
If I’m paying a certain amount of money for a set of outcomes, I might find that person A can deliver those outcomes in three days, and person B can deliver them in two days. As a business owner, I might think, ‘well, I need to give them more things to do on the other day’.
But is that right? Is it equitable? Again, it’s not impossible, but it does take some deliberation to look at the roles across the business and decide how you want to run things.
One of the reasons working from home has become so widespread is that since COVID, everybody is doing it. It was much trickier before the pandemic, in part because of customer expectations. We needed to be onsite with them for face-to-face meetings, and that expectation made it more difficult to have our staff working from home.
Now people are quite used to taking video meetings, it’s become normal. But three years ago, it wasn’t. I know in my business, all of our meetings with potential and existing clients were face-to-face.
It’s the same with a four-day work week. If you’re being a trailblazer, and you’re doing a four-day work week, but your customers aren’t, then you need to think about how you’re going to manage that fifth day across the business.
Does it mean everybody in the business works the same four days? Do you stagger them? How will the teams work? Again, it’s not impossible, but it needs to be considered.
Squeezing 41 Hours into 4 Days
Another issue is the risk of pushing a 41-hour week into four days. If you’ve ever gone from full-time work to part-time work, you may have experienced this, I know I have. When your job is a full-time job but all of a sudden, you have to do it within three or four days.
The trick is to take a realistic look at productivity and ask:
- can this job be done in four days?
- are there bits that we need to take out of the role and put into another role by looking at those outcomes?
- Are there check-in points with everybody so we can ensure we’re not burning people out?
Now, hopefully, there should be enough ‘fat’ in the week that people aren’t feeling burnt out by losing that one day, but it’s certainly a consideration.
One question often comes up around the four-day week: are we just adding costs to the business? And with part-timers, you may be.
Say I’m already working four days a week, and my colleague’s working five days a week. You say to my colleague, ‘you can now work four days for the same money,’ but you keep me on my lower salary, 80% of the full-time rate, for working the same hours. I’m not going to be happy about that. You may need to increase my pay to the full-time equivalent, effectively giving me a 20% raise. So it’s worth looking at the impact across the business, and what it is going to cost you in those sorts of scenarios.
The four-day week is a bit of a leap. It relies on the premise that moving people from five days to four days is not adding costs, because they’re going to be just as, if not more, productive. We need to believe this is the case, and we need to instill that belief into all of our leaders and managers as well.