Are four-day working weeks sustainable in the tech sector?

As many businesses continue to implement shorter working weeks for employees, we explore the potential in the technology sector.

For most people, a long and tiresome week of work is just the norm. When it comes to winding down, relaxing and doing things with your loved ones, that's simply something reserved for evenings, weekends and holidays.

But in today's fast-paced and interconnected economy, new ways of working are always emerging. One in particular is a four-day week, which is quickly gaining traction across a range of industry verticals. According to Bank of England Chief Economist Andy Haldane, it'll become standard by 2050 as technology continues to transform the way we work.

Research certainly demonstrates the benefits of four-day working weeks. In February, a trial by New Zealand-based financial services firm Perpetual Guardian found that it can increase productivity by more than 20% while also reducing stress, accelerating staff engagement, improving employee wellbeing and increasing profits.

Meanwhile, a recently published study by Ricoh Europe found that 57% of European workers believe technological advancements will bring about a four-day working week. The question is, what does this way-of-working look like in practice? And is it sustainable in the constantly evolving technology sector?

A looming revolution

Like many other businesses, mobile workforce technology company, BigChange, plans to enforce the four-day working week by 2021. The firm, which is headquartered in Leeds and employs 125 people, is investing in automation and machine learning technologies so that all employees only work 32 hours weekly.

"Machine learning and automation are the future of BigChange. There is a fantastic opportunity with tools such as A.I. to enhance productivity, job satisfaction and quality of life for our people," claims Martin Port, BigChange CEO.

"We want to give people at BigChange the tools and the opportunity to do their jobs in four days, not five. They will make the same money as they would if they were working a full week, but they'll also have more time for relaxing and spending time with their families."

Port explains that his team is currently identifying the best way to introduce a four-day working week, with a view to moving to this new way of working during 2021. He adds: "It will establish a taskforce with representatives from across the business to lead this activity and has committed to retraining people for new roles should automation replace their work entirely."

Reaping the rewards

Last summer, digital agency LAB implemented a four-day week for all its staff after seeing increased enthusiasm in its teams following a three-day Bank Holiday weekend. The firm wanted to replicate this every week.

Founder and CEO Jonny Tooze tells IDG Connect: "We believe in a digital future where everyone is free to do what they love, and where play is as important as work, so we wanted to try and give our people the opportunity to have more time doing the things they enjoy. We also believed that it would lead to better work for our clients."

Ten months on, the business has experienced a plethora of benefits. "We've seen no decrease in productivity and our people return to work feeling energised after their long weekend. Our clients are also happy," says Tooze.

"The initiative hasn't been without its challenges - we've definitely had to work hard to ensure a good flow of communication for days when key individuals aren't in the office, and we've found that this way of working can cause additional stress, but overall we feel it's been a great move for our business, our work and our clients."

Rich Leigh, founder of digital communications agency RadioactivePR, believes tech is an enabler for shorter working weeks. "It's often been said that technology should improve our lives not add more strain, and I think we use services and tools to that end. In fact, without WhatsApp, Google Drive and various reporting tools, we wouldn't be able to have made the jump to four days," he tells us.

"WhatsApp allows us to instantly communicate with clients and each other - meaning that when we're out of the office on a Friday, everyone still knows exactly what's going on should we need to hop on something quickly. Google Drive is also important, as it allows everyone in the office to work remotely."

Nothing is perfect

While a lot of firms are achieving great things with four-day working weeks, there are other working concepts to consider. Christian Owens, CEO of fast-growing software firm Paddle, says employers shouldn't dictate whether people work four or five days a week. Instead, they should give employees the flexibility to work the way that's best for them.

"We bias towards trusting people to work in the way they prefer because we believe this leads to both higher impact, and a healthier culture. Flexible working (work when and where you want) and unlimited holiday (take a break when you need it) have made a big impact here," he explains.

"Meetings are fewer and shorter, the focus is on the outcome rather than superficial signs like regularly staying late. Our team feels more energised and collaborative, because they know they can just work from home when they need to focus, or take a day off without sacrificing their holiday if they need to look after their kids."

Owens says the advantages of flexible working are the effectiveness (less meetings, more quick chats), the positive culture (breeding trust), the improved inclusivity (everyone can work along their own personal needs) and for employees the convenience. He adds: "It, however, needs more work to put in place and set up for success (video conferencing for everyone, healthy documentation and communication habits, HR tooling)."

But Geoff Parkhurst, CTO at vouchercloud, says a four-day working week would simply not work for an in-house technology team like his. "We're a 24/7 e-commerce business, so have longer term obligations to support the company as a whole," he says.

"This doesn't mean we're chained to our desks for all hours of the day - more that we need to fit with the overall business schedule - one that's defined in part by our customers. Even if we went to a four day week, there's still the contingency plans like the ‘on call' rotas. It wouldn't be a true four day work week just because the work doesn't - and can't - stop."

He claims that having tech specialists take a more active role on the business side is not a bad thing. "For an in-house tech function, stepping back from normal day to day operations will result in a department that's perceived as separate from the overall business. It's another barrier raised when we need to be removing them.

Parkhurst concludes: "In many cases, the four day working week can be a mask for deeper challenges. The aim for managers and seniors needs to be properly engaging staff and allowing them the freedom they need to balance work and lives. Dropping a day of work doesn't solve these problems - it just delays them."