The Telegraph reported yesterday that KPMG told its 16,000 UK staff that they can take a morning or afternoon off, any day of the week over the summer, to support wellbeing and allow them to “re-energise” after working on intense and stressful projects during the pandemic. The Big Four consultant is seeking to embrace flexible working in the wake of Covid – with new boss Jon Holt seeking to boost morale for his reportedly beleaguered team – staff, including partners, will be expected to spend only 4-days a week in the office, over a 2-week period, along with not being required to stay in the office the full working day.

KPMG are taking bold steps to “re-energize” frazzled teams, will other UK businesses follow suit in order to re-charge and retain existing team members and entice the best talent to join?

Whilst over the last year many business owners have taken the opportunity to realign their team, right-size their business, trim excess costs and are now match fit; as the shackles come off and pent-up demand drives a wave of financial optimism – what happens if companies start to lose their, now key, current team members? Have some of the decisions taken and how those decisions were handled in the heat of the first lockdown – furlough, redundancies, working from home, coming back to the office – been stored up by a disgruntled workforce who have their resignation letters poised ready to hand in. From an employee’s perspective, it must be a risky game swapping a company where you have employee rights and longevity to go into a new role, with a probation period, during a pandemic – so will the next few months leave many small to medium sized business with an unforeseen headache; just at a time when they were looking to kick on and grow, they lose valuable talent and decrease in size?

Never has employee benefits and wellbeing been so important and valued when presented correctly; not a box ticking exercise by the board but woven into the fabric of the culture from the top down, constantly reinforced – ‘’it’s not what you offer, it’s how it’s presented’’ as an owner of a benefits and welfare company stated during a zoom meeting recently; the key pillars, as he put it, being supporting the Emotional, Physical and Financial aspects of your team.

So how do we change the company culture to support our team in an emerging post-Covid world?

As with most cultural changes in any business – it must come from the top!

During a recent meeting with a group of business leaders, one of the comments from an owner really resonated with me. He described how he used to feel guilty for picking the kids up from school and that by not being in the office made him feel as if he was letting the side down. This is something I completely concur with, which is why the last year has given me, like a lot of people, the chance to redress the balance; the challenge now is holding onto the life work balance you have created…what do you, the business owner, give yourself permission to do?

The work life balance holy grail is, of course, not just for the business owner, it is must be available and achievable to the whole team. Whilst some may be reluctant to do so, as the owner and leadership team embrace their new-normal and vocalise that throughout the business – reinforcing it on regular occasions – one would hope the rest of the team would be comfortable and encouraged to adopt a similar approach; setting clear boundaries between their own work and life.

At Synergy we have always made it very clear that we do not expect any of our team to work beyond the hours agreed unless in the unlikely event we have a major issue with a client’s site, we would expect them to help the client get back up and running – but this should be the 1-2% of their time, never the norm. We want our team to come to work, have fun, make a difference, and then switch off, enjoy time with their families, friends and hobbies. The harder I work the more I get done is rarely a successful approach and can lead to burn out, disenfranchisement and failure.

Perhaps a 4-day week is the solution?

Historically limited to business owners as they glide into retirement, company wide 4-day weeks have been tried across many countries including UK, New Zealand, Japan, Sweden and the States all finding similar, positive, outcomes – lower stress levels, happier employees, increased productivity with increased profits…what’s not to like? The only issue I have (somewhat cynically I guess) is how many of these companies retained a 4-day week and how many are still in business?

In December 2000, Independent thinktank, Autonomy, released ‘The Day After Tomorrow report’ which concluded the following:

The study utilises profitability data on UK businesses for the first time to see whether firms could afford to switch to a four-day (32 hour) working week.

Using profitability statistics on over 50,000 leading UK firms, Autonomy simulated best and worst case scenarios regarding profit rates under a sudden imposition of a four-day week and found that:

  • Under the best-case scenario, a reduction in hours would be entirely offset by increases in productivity and price increases.
  • Under the worst-case scenario, a four-day week with no loss of pay would be affordable for most firms once the initial phase of the Covid-19 crisis has passed.
  • Under the worst-case scenario, some firms in high-labour cost industries could experience cash flow problems but only if a four day week was implemented too quickly.
  • The report recommends that the public sector should lead the way in adopting shorter working hours and trade unions should be given a stronger voice to negotiate working time reductions in their specific sectors.

Conversely, as reported, Spain could become the first country in the world to pilot a 4-day working week, instead focused on companies being the pilot, not the civil service. Small left-wing Spanish party Mas Pais are suggesting the pilot involving “around 200 companies and anywhere from 3000 to 6000 workers” could start as soon as the Autumn; with Hector Tejero (Mas Pias) seeking to mitigate some of the business risks (as highlighted in the Autonomy report) with a subsidisation programme – 100% Year One, 50% Year Two and 33% Year Three – expected to cost in the region of 50m euros. Whilst I don’t profess to be a political mastermind, I believe this approach has been attempted by a series of left-wing governments in the past, following a period of disaster/recession, however, unlike Spain’s proposed pilot, the initiative tends to be controlled within the respective civil services, rather than private sector, as the Autonomy report recommends.

With the UK, and other governments, keeping a close eye on how matters pan out in Spain, it does beg the question – would a 4-day week be something that UK businesses could adopt to increase productivity and give burned out teams a chance to recharge; or provide growing businesses the ability to really differentiate themselves from their competition? It wasn’t all that long ago business owners felt WFH wouldn’t provide productivity gains, the opposite has been found to be true for many businesses, including my own. Therefore, would a week’s work get completed in a 32-hour 4-day week format? Potentially it might, albeit some of the examples I researched, Shake Shack in the U.S. for instance, didn’t reduce the number of hours to 32 from 40, they simply got staff to work 4 days x 10 hours a day – maybe that’s the compromise?

With businesses across the land developing and refining their Employee Value Propositions (EVPs) with a raft of employee benefits being offered to tempt the best talent to jump ship, in reality, will that actually happen – not withstanding if the board of the company really messed up how they handled lockdown – if your company has provided a safe, enjoyable, financially secure workplace throughout the last year; keeping the team updated regarding elements that, prior to Covid, were off limits such as financial performance for instance and can now give them assurances their job is safe and their career is still moving in the right direction, albeit at a slightly slower rate than previously expected over the last year, why would you move?

Now, like never before, the owners of businesses have the opportunity to not only cling onto the life work balance they’ve carved out and enjoyed over the last year, but also promote that actively to their teams – creating a happy ship where no one wants to leave and the best talent wants to join.