The four day week debate

The world of work is shifting and contract, temporary, freelance and casual models are growing. With human capital at a premium, do full-time employers need to focus on encouraging retention or adapt the traditional working week?

Recently the Grove of Narberth hotel has introduced a four-day working week for its kitchen staff ti improve the workforces employment conditions. It is a curious change to the traditional model and one which has opened up the debate of what’s fair for people and business.

The Pembrokeshire-based country house has reduced the hours of its kitchen team to achieve a better work life balance and improve staff retention. At the time the owner argued staff have had a raw deal working long shifts, so the reduction of hours would create a happy and energised workforce. It is a bold change and the five-star rated hotel is certainly one of the first to take this approach in Wales. 

The move does also raise further questions – why is it for kitchen staff only and is this only possible due to a perhaps quieter location? Whilst some may be sceptical of the move, the argument should be made that talent is a true differentiator within the sector and therefore working fewer hours may encourage more to enter the industry and work for a business.

Acquiring the right people will always be a main aim in the industry. However with the world of work constantly changing, many believe that the nurturing of talent must include an emphasis on investment in training and unlocking potential which for numerous reasons has been constrained. 

The changes in work include the growth of zero hour contacts. The number of people employed on “zero-hours contacts” in their main job, during October to December 2016 was 905,000, representing 2.8 per cent of all people in employment (according to the Labour Force Survey in the UK). While they remain a relatively small phenomenon, they have been growing more prevalent.

Some experts thought the contracts were a fleeting post-recession move that would fade as employers became less nervous about hiring permanent employees. However they seem to have become embedded in some parts of the hospitality sector even though unemployment is at an 11-year low. The concern is that employers have the ability to hire people in a way that can undermine the bargaining power of other workers, thus dampening pressure for improved pay and conditions. Would changes, such as the four- day week, bring down the number of people reliant on zero hours?

Another change in the world of work is the growth of freelance workers. In the UK, ‘The Association of Independent Professionals and the Self Employed’ explored the UK Freelance Workforce in 2015. Their findings showed there were 1.91 million freelancers in the UK with a further 255,000 working freelance in second jobs. Between 2008 and 2015 the number of freelancers in the UK increased by 36 per cent. The largest proportion of freelancer workers are 40–49 years of age (25%) but growth has also been seen in both those aged 16–29 and those 60+. The speculative estimate of the economic contribution freelance workers make to the UK Economy is approximately £109bn a year. It also provides an estimate £30 billion a year in ‘added value’ to UK GDP.

The growth of freelance workers is often argued as positive for both the employer and the employee. There is increasing demand from businesses wanting to keep costs down and hire in skills as and when they need them. On the other side there is a growing number of individuals wanting to work flexibly. Professional services firm PwC estimate from their research that half of HR professionals expect at least one in five of the workforce to be made up of contractors or temporary workers by 2020.

The obvious disadvantage of being a freelancer is the lack of job security and having to provide one’s own services from marketing to accounting and pensions. Whilst some workers cannot find full-time roles to suit their skills, the hospitality industry and the appeal of a four-day work week may attract more.

The four-day working week is not a new move in the industry. In 2015 chef Sat Bains argued he was willing to change to ensure staff retention. For his Nottingham restaurant with rooms he believed he would lose more than £100,000 by changing working practices for staff. This was just one of the radical changes that many believe are necessarily to address the chef shortage problem across the country. However, not many businesses seem to have changed or if they have, it’s been kept quiet. Other businesses have looked at offering profit- sharing schemes and cutting certain services to improve staff hours.

At the extreme, some have argued that a reduced work week would redefine the relationship between work and life. The ‘radical’ new policy has also been adopted by some British political parties, who argue a future of innovative and creative disruption requires a model of this type. 

The four day week will undoubtedly appeal to some individuals. For businesses the concern is that unorthodox shift structures impact on productivity. Early adopters may provide clues to its success, but until the financials are investigated, the argument will labour in the undecided field. As more people push into working 50, 60, 70 hours a week, business may notice their output performances dropping and people suffering. The natural move for an individual is to then look to these models and the appeal may grow. Hospitality is all about people but pushing them beyond the time they should work may lead to consequences that damage the industry.