How to make the four-day week work for your startup

If a global pandemic hadn’t forced the entire world indoors for the best part of two years, would we even be talking about a four-day working week?

The truth is, we’ll never really know. But here we are.

Global disruptions are usually pretty good for kick-starting change. Cast your mind back to the very first lockdown. Most businesses had no choice but to embrace working from home – and quickly.

Almost overnight, even the most slow-moving businesses managed to switch to remote working. Yes, there were hiccups. And countless repetitions of ‘you’re on mute’ and ‘can you see my screen’. But they made it work.

And at first we all might have thought this way of working was a blip. We all thought ‘normality will resume soon… right? RIGHT!?

But that hasn’t quite happened.

Instead, as the world opened up we’ve seen an impressive blend of flexible working approaches to the standard 9-5. From fully hybrid offerings, to set days in the office and set days from home. Businesses have realised their workforces simply wouldn’t settle for a summons ‘back to the office’. 

And the discussions about productivity versus work/life balance haven’t stopped there. If we can experiment with where we work, surely we can change when we work too?  *Door smashes open* – enter the four-day work week.

Does the four-day work week really work?

The UK took part in the world’s largest four-day working week trial to-date in 2023. The results were an astounding success.

  • 39% of employees reported feeling less stressed
  • 62% of employees said they found it easier to balance their work and social lives
  • company revenue stayed broadly the same, with an average rise of 1.4% 
  • overall attrition rates dropped by 57% during the trial period

So teams who are less stressed, with a better work-life balance, and less likely to leave. With no drop in revenue. There’s a heap of available online too, if you still need convincing. 

Right. Now we have your attention, let’s see how you can make this work in practice.

How to make a four-day week work for your startup

Let’s get into it. We work a lot with companies looking to take on their first employee and where this is the case, it can be somewhat more straightforward to have the four-day week set from the beginning. But still, how can you make a four-day week work for your startup? There are a couple of challenges you’ll need to be prepared for.

  1. Measuring productivity.

We’ve talked about how a shorter work week doesn’t need to impact productivity. But the only way to be sure your business is ticking over the way you need it to is by being clear about how you’ll measure that productivity.

That’s not always easy in a startup. More established businesses have entire teams working on just one KPI. But while you’re growing and finding your feet in your market, these things are often less set in stone.

So be clear with your teams; what does success look like? And how will you be monitoring and measuring that success? Maybe it’s the number of sales calls made. Perhaps it’s a specific number of deliverables. Whatever you need to make your startup run; be clear about what’s expected and how you’ll keep track of productivity. Do remember though, your people can’t be 100% productive 100% of the time. Machines don’t even hit that mark, and we are not machines (yet). 

And it’s okay if these things flex and change over time; as long as the changes are fair and communicated properly. 

Need a little inspiration? Check out the pilot programme by 4 Day Week Global which promoted a 100:80:100 principle. Employees received 100% pay for 80% time worked with 100% productivity targets achieved.

  1. Ruthlessly prioritising.

Prioritisation. Always fun. Especially at a startup.  

The productivity value of a four day work week depends on your ability – as a team – to focus on doing the right stuff.

Let’s face it; startups can be hectic. The workloads can be BIG. And the pace can be lightning-quick. Of course you want to keep tabs on who’s-working-on-what. But you don’t want to slip into micro-manager territory. (We’re sure you have enough on your plate already).

So how can you have an empowered team you know is working on the right stuff?  You need to be really clear on what work really matters. And help your teams understand how to decide what gets done; in what order. 

Communication is key here; bring your team into your vision and goals. Repeat what’s important. All the time. In person, in meetings, in casual coffee catch-ups. All. The. Time.

And tell them why you make the decisions you make. Why you go after that client but don’t waste time chasing that one. Before long, you’ll be confident they’re making judgement calls of their own and mirroring your prioritisation methods.

  1. Leading from the front.

It takes a special kind of person to launch and lead a startup. Someone who can hold a thousand different important things in their head at all times. A super hard worker. A determined, dedicated, burning-the-midnight-oil type. 

But embracing a radical new way of working means exactly that. Embracing it. That means you need to do it too.

There’s a special kind of small-team-magic about a startup. And whether you like it or not,  your employees will look to you as an example of how to behave. They’ll model their behaviour on yours. 

What do you think will happen if you say ‘we don’t work Fridays’ but then send a bunch of Friday emails that your team come into on Monday? It’ll only be a matter of time before they’re making themselves scarce for messages off you on an off day. And then logging on to action a few tasks. And then working a full day. Before long your well intentioned ‘four day week’ will have evaporated.

If you absolutely have to work that little bit extra, do these three things:

  • Be strict with yourself. Only log on to work on specific must-do tasks. Once they’re done, stop working.
  • Leave the team out of it. Don’t message your colleagues or book meetings. Don’t do anything that makes it obvious you were working on an off-day.
  • Keep schtum. When you’re working hard, it’s tempting to tell everyone about it. But the team don’t need to hear how you spent Sunday evening writing a paper. Or stayed up until midnight.

We don’t actually endorse any of the above.  We’d prefer you enjoyed the benefits of a four-day work week yourself. But we’re realists and know what you pesky entrepreneurial types are like. So try and ruthlessly prioritise. But if you must work on an off-day; just don’t advertise it.

The future of the four day work week

Despite evidence showing just how viable the four-day work week is, it seems the UK government is still yet to be convinced. In fact, local councils have recently been informed to cease 4 day working trials.

But that doesn’t need to be the end of the four day week dream. It just means businesses may need to take matters into their own hands.

With a healthy appetite for adventure, entrepreneurial spirit, and a can-do attitude, who better to drive the four-day-week forward than startup founders?

Guess it’s over to you…

Katie Feagan

Katie brings a wealth of experience in the talent acquisition and people space, and has held senior HR and Talent leadership roles in the broadcasting and fin-tech industries. Katie has an MBA and is a chartered member of the CIPD.

Lives the good life with her chickens and bees, often to be found at festivals, the person you need in a crisis.
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