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Working a four-day week boosts employee wellbeing while preserving productivity – study

Sixty-one organisations in the UK committed to a 20% reduction in working hours for all staff, with no fall in wages, for a six-month period starting in June 2022. The vast majority of companies also retained full-time productivity targets.

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Sixty-one organisations in the UK committed to a 20% reduction in working hours for all staff, with no fall in wages, for a six-month period starting in June 2022. The vast majority of companies also retained full-time productivity targets.

Now, results from the world’s largest trial of a four-day working week reveal significantly reduced rates of stress and illness in the workforce – with 71% of employees self-reporting lower levels of “burnout”, and 39% saying they were less stressed, compared to the start of the trial.

There was a 65% reduction in sick days, and a 57% fall in the number of staff leaving participating companies, compared to the same period the previous year. Company revenue barely changed during the trial period – even increasing marginally by 1.4% on average. 

In a report of the findings presented to UK lawmakers, some 92% of companies that took part in the UK pilot programme (56 out of 61) say they intend to continue with the four-day working week, with 18 companies confirming the change as permanent.

Research for the UK trials was conducted by a team of social scientists from the University of Cambridge, working with academics from Boston College in the US and the think tank Autonomy. The trial was organised by 4 Day Week Global in conjunction with the UK’s 4 Day Week Campaign.

Companies from across the UK took part, with around 2,900 employees dropping a day of work. Organisations involved in the trial ranged from online retailers and financial service providers to animation studios and a local fish-and-chip shop.

Other industries represented include consultancy, housing, IT, skincare, recruitment, hospitality, marketing, and healthcare.

Researchers surveyed employees throughout the trial to gauge the effects of having an extra day of free time. Self-reported levels of anxiety and fatigue decreased across workforces, while mental and physical health improved.

Many survey respondents said they found it easier to balance work with both family and social commitments: 60% of employees found an increased ability to combine paid work with care responsibilities, and 62% reported it easier to combine work with social life.

“Before the trial, many questioned whether we would see an increase in productivity to offset the reduction in working time – but this is exactly what we found,” said sociologist Prof Brendan Burchell, who led the University of Cambridge side of the research.

“Many employees were very keen to find efficiency gains themselves. Long meetings with too many people were cut short or ditched completely. Workers were much less inclined to kill time, and actively sought out technologies that improved their productivity.”

Dr David Frayne, a Research Associate at the University of Cambridge, said: “We feel really encouraged by the results, which showed the many ways companies were turning the four-day week from a dream into realistic policy, with multiple benefits.”

Joe Ryle, Director of the 4 Day Week Campaign, calls the results a “major breakthrough moment” for the idea of shorter working weeks. “Across a wide variety of different sectors of the economy, these incredible results show that the four-day week actually works.”

In addition to the survey work, designed in collaboration with colleagues including Prof Juliet Schor from Boston College, the Cambridge team conducted a large number of extensive interviews with employees and company CEOs before, during and after the six-month trial.

Other pilots run by 4 Day Week Global in the US and Ireland – with research conducted by many of the same academics – have already reported their findings. However, the UK trial is not only the largest to date but also the first to include in-depth interview research.

“The method of this pilot allowed our researchers to go beyond surveys and look in detail at how the companies were making it work on the ground,” said Frayne, from Cambridge’s Department of Sociology.

In terms of motivations, several senior managers told researchers they saw the four-day week as a rational response to the pandemic – and believed it would give them an edge when it came to attracting talent in the post-Covid job market.

Some saw it as an appealing alternative to unlimited home working, which they felt risked company culture. Others had seen staff suffer through health problems and bereavement during the pandemic, and felt an increased “moral responsibility” towards employees.

“I hated the pandemic, but it’s made us see each other much more in the round, and it’s made us all realise the importance of having a healthy head, and that family matters,” said the CEO of a non-profit organisation that took part in the trial.

However, many said shorter hours were being discussed long before Covid as a response to demanding or emotionally draining work. The CEO of a video game studio pointed to high-profile examples of “crunch and burnout” in their industry as a reason for involvement in the trial.

Perhaps surprisingly, however, no organisation interviewed was taking part in the trials simply because technology had reduced their need for human labour.

Some companies stopped work completely for a three-day weekend, while others staggered a reduced workforce over a week. One restaurant calculated their 32-hour week over an entire year to have long opening times in the summer, but much shorter in winter.     

A few companies in the trial attached strings to the reduced hours, including fewer holiday days, agreement that staff could be called in at short notice, or a “conditional” four-day week: one that only continued while performance targets were met.

Interviews documented how companies reduced working hours without compromising on targets. Common methods included shorter meetings with clearer agendas; introduction of interruption-free ‘focus periods’; reforming email etiquette to reduce long chains and inbox churn; new analyses of production processes; end-of-day task lists for effective handovers or next-day head starts.

When employees were asked how they used additional time off, by far the most popular response was “life admin”: tasks such as shopping and household chores. Many explained how this allowed them a proper break for leisure activities on Saturday and Sunday.  

“It was common for employees to describe a significant reduction in stress,” said researcher and Cambridge PhD candidate Niamh Bridson Hubbard. “Many described being able to switch off or breathe more easily at home. One person told us how their ‘Sunday dread’ had disappeared.”

For some parents of young children, a midweek day off meant savings on childcare expenses. For those with older children, it meant some welcome ‘me time’. All reported doing more of the activities they already enjoy – from sport to cooking, music making to volunteering. Some developed new interests, while others used the time to get professional qualifications.  

“When you realise that day has allowed you to be relaxed and rested, and ready to absolutely go for it on those other four days, you start to realise that to go back to working on a Friday would feel really wrong – stupid actually,” said the CEO of a consultancy organisation involved in the trial.

When it came to working culture, employees were generally positive, feeling more valued by their employer and describing a shared sense of purpose arising from efforts to make the four-day week a success.

However, several staff at one large company had concerns about intensifying workloads, while some at creative companies expressed disquiet over reduced worktime conviviality due to ‘focus time’, and argued that unstructured chat often generates new ideas.

By the end of the six-month trial, many of the managers said they could not imagine returning to a five-day week. “Almost everyone we interviewed described being overwhelmed with questions from other organisations in their industry that are interested in following suit,” said Burchell. 

“When we ask employers, a lot of them are convinced the four-day week is going to happen. It has been uplifting for me personally, just talking to so many upbeat people over the last six months. A four-day week means a better working life and family life for so many people.”

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Sticking with old technology can be a strategic move

As competitors adopt new technology in some markets, firms that stick with the old technology may experience an initial decline before actually rebounding and even reaching new heights.

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Technological innovation — especially disruptive innovation — is often heralded as the best strategy for a company. But new research published in Strategic Management Journal found that as competitors adopt new technology in some markets, firms that stick with the old technology may experience an initial decline before actually rebounding and even reaching new heights. While the rise of a discontinuous technology does pose a substitute threat to the old technology, it also further exposes niche segments where companies can gain a foothold with customers who favor the old technology.

The analysis by Xu Li, a professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, used archival data from the traditional Chinese medicine industry in China during the 1990s. In his interviews with managers in the field, he found that some chose not to innovate along with their competitors. In many cases, Li found these companies were performing well, if not sometimes better, by not making changes. Inspired by these conversations, Li chose to study under what conditions a firm may benefit from not innovating.

Li found some prior research on why companies would stick with older technology, but none explored why — during times of disruptive change in the market — sometimes firms are able to survive and even perform better within a small niche with old technology. What Li’s paper showed was that adhering to the old technology can, in some cases, be an effective strategy that ultimately improves firm performance.

The data showed a U-curve effect for traditional Chinese medicine firms that chose not to adopt new technology: The decline in performance began as a few competitors started launching a new technology, but later recovered and reached new heights as most competitors had adopted the new technology and exited the old technology market. But a lack of competition within the niche group of consumers who prefer older technology essentially gave these firms a monopoly within a smaller market as fewer competitors remained.

“Even though the new technology is often superior in terms of functionality, it doesn’t mean that every single customer or customer segment will be willing to move to the new technology,” Li says. “It’s important to understand what customers like about your product. We tend to assume that if a firm introduces something new, then customers must appreciate the new thing or the newness of the offering. But that’s not always true. The emergence of new technology can actually reveal people’s preference for something older.”

The research also refutes the idea that when the market is small, a company won’t perform better — but that depends on how many firms are still serving this niche. If only a few firms are left to serve this market, a company has far more power to charge higher prices among loyal customers with few other options.

“When you see a firm that is not actively innovating, we tend to believe the firm must be either incapable or is suffering — it’s always a bit of a negative tone,” Li says. “Sometimes staying with old technology might actually be a strategic choice, because by doing so it might also lead to better performance.”

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Customers prefer text over video to provide service feedback

More people indicated they would likely leave written compliments or complaints about service on a restaurant-provided tablet powered by artificial intelligence. A video message option appeared to discourage leaving feedback.

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At a time when one viral video can damage a business, some companies are turning to their own commenting platforms rather than letting social media be the main outlet for customer feedback. Only one wrinkle: in this context, customers appear to prefer writing a message rather than leaving a video.

In a recent study, more participants indicated they would likely leave written compliments or complaints about service on a restaurant-provided tablet powered by artificial intelligence. A video message option appeared to discourage leaving feedback.

With more restaurants and hotels turning to AI to enhance their service, the findings indicate that methods that require “low self-disclosure” would work better, meaning ones that don’t require customers to provide very much identifiable information.

“Some restaurants and hotels actually ask customers to create video testimonials that they can share, but for general customers, it seems they feel more comfortable with low self-disclosure. This is probably because people still do not trust AI to that level,” said lead author Ruiying Cai, a researcher in Washington State University’s Carson College of Business.

With a lot of hype around AI technology, many people have misperceptions about what it can do, Cai pointed out, perhaps believing it is capable of a lot more than simply recording a message.

The study participants reported being concerned about what would be done with their information in all the scenarios, but this was heightened with the option to leave a video.

For the study, published in the International Journal of Hospitality Management, Cai and her colleagues presented different online scenarios to a total of 439 people. The participants were first asked to imagine a restaurant where they had either good or bad service. Then they reported how willing they were to give the server compliments, or complaints, with either text or video on an AI-enabled tablet.

The researchers found that the participants were more willing to give feedback using text, whether positive or negative.

The scenarios also had participants receiving a theoretical immediate or delayed reward to provide feedback, namely a 5% discount of their current meal or a future one. For complaints, the reward timing did not appear to make much difference, which the authors said was not surprising as people tend to be more highly motivated to complain than compliment.

For compliments, the researchers found an interesting connection: with more participants choosing the delayed reward over the immediate one. This may indicate that giving the compliment itself is its own reward as it makes the giver feel good, Cai said.

“It’s a good start to think about how to encourage customers to leave more compliments which could be very important for frontline employees. It could also be beneficial for the customers themselves,” she said.

Even complaints are important to encourage, Cai added. As her previous research suggests, restaurants and hotels should make it easier for customers to complain to them directly rather than go elsewhere to air their grievances.

“There have been episodes when customers were not afraid of posting angry videos on their own social media,” Cai said. “If restaurants and hotels can encourage customers to complain directly to them, then they may be able to recover and solve that service failure before it goes viral online.”

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Ambitious workers park the office politics when employer is struggling, study suggests

Workers curb competition against competitors to unite against external rivals when employer faces either losing sector status or can improve reputation.

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Workers curb competition against competitors to unite against external rivals when employer faces either losing sector status or can improve reputation.

This is according to a study – “Revving Up or Backing Down? Cross-Level Effects of Firm-Level Tournaments on Employees’ Competitive Actions” by Patrick Hallila, Hans T. W. Frankort and Paolo Aversa – that appeared in the Academy of Management Journal.

The peer reviewed paper, which has been published on the website of the Academy of Management Journal, looked at riders who, systematically, adjusted their internal and external overtakes based on their team’s competitive threats and opportunities, as well as the resources available to those competitor teams.

“Sports – particularly motorsports – can be a good proxy for several other industries as they are extremely competitive: if you don’t perform and progress you may be out. Workers in sectors such as consultancy and financial services face similar pressures,” Frankort said.

This study linked the motorsports experience to other workplaces, particularly since earlier research has shown that employees compete to improve their relative standing in the eyes of their employer, in the hope of climbing the career ladder. Such behaviors may include poaching colleagues’ clients or even disrupting or sabotaging their work.

And yet this study suggests that ambitious workers tend to modify those behaviors when the standing of their organization is about to deteriorate or improve.

“Why? Because they see the standing of their firm as an important factor in deciding who to compete with to advance their career,” Frankort said.

“If the company has a chance to out-perform better-resourced rivals, employees’ workplace behaviour is geared towards being seen to be a key contributor to that success. For example, a salesperson might try to poach colleagues’ clients. However, if a firm is facing threats, such as losing market share to smaller rivals, workers may feel that infighting is poor form. Instead, they would focus on competing against rival firms. Inside the firm, individuals may simply want to blend into the background when their company is going through difficult times.”

The findings suggest, Frankort said, that employers can influence the nature of their employees’ competitive actions. For example, employers could highlight threats to the firm from underdog firms or its opportunities against bigger rivals.

The research also found that riders’ overtaking attempts were shaped by their contractual position with the team. For example, replacement riders – the MotoGP equivalent of agency workers – attempt more overtakes against teammates when the team is doing well and against all riders when the team is struggling.

The paper concluded: “It may be that replacement riders are keen to signal their skills relative to incumbents, hoping to secure a permanent contract.”

Riders whose contracts will not be renewed challenge their teammates on the track and are less likely to overtake riders from other teams – suggesting they feel detached from the team and even disgruntled with it.

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