Can hospitality move to a four-day week?

26 February 2021 by
Can hospitality move to a four-day week?

A lack of work-life balance is often cited as a downside of working in hospitality, but could a shorter working week be the solution? Ben Walker speaks to those who have done it to find out how the industry can adapt.

In recent years, hospitality businesses have become increasingly aware of the importance of their employees' wellbeing and its impact on performance and productivity. Enlightened employers have introduced a variety of measures to create a better work-life balance for their teams. One of these policies is the four-day working week.

As Covid-19 has ushered in lockdowns, working from home and rising unemployment, the idea of a four-day week becoming more widespread across the UK economy has gained new currency.

A 2020 study by the think tank Autonomy said a four-day week would be affordable for most UK firms without any loss of pay once the initial phase of the Covid-19 crisis has passed. Simply by increasing the number of bank holidays, the government could start the transition, the study suggested.

The theory behind the four-day week is that employees have more time to pursue hobbies, spend time with their families, get more sleep and increase their morale. Workers are then more refreshed and their increased productivity makes up for the lost day.

On the face of it, the four-day week seems only applicable to office or manufacturing jobs, so how could it work in a 24/7 industry like hospitality?

True, it will not work for everyone, but it can be applied in different ways: to opening times or working hours. Both large hospitality corporations and independents have implemented it.

Sodexo UK and Ireland, for example, has almost 1,000 employees on four (or fewer) days a week. Several independent operators have found a four-day week to be "transformational" and "probably the best move we ever made".

Reduced opening times

In its strictest form, the four-day week means your business is only open four days and closed for three. This is the model Sat and Amanda Bains adopted in 2015 for their two-Michelin-starred Nottingham restaurant with rooms.

After more than 30 years of experience, the Bains wanted to find a way to make the restaurant industry more attractive and make their employees stay longer. Their solution was to offer better wages, conditions and more sociable hours than they had experienced in their own careers. Their employee package includes private healthcare that covers family members, too.

At first, the Bains were nervous about the switch because their calculations suggested that only opening from Wednesday to Saturday would result in a six-figure loss, but this never happened.

"We managed to work our way around that by opening at lunchtimes and condensing five days of covers into four," says Sat Bains. "It made us all a bit busier, but it also made everyone work more efficiently. It made the business greener. It made everyone appreciate having a long break."

It made us all a bit busier, but it also made everyone work more efficiently

Staff finish at around 1am on a Sunday and do not return until 7am on a Wednesday. "It's a lovely feeling to know you've got a lie-in on a Sunday and then another two full days to make the most of," says Bains.

Despite the reduced opening times, staff have kept the same pay as when they worked five days a week. The move has led to an improvement in retention, which has increased from an average of two to three years.

Bains compares his operation to that of a philharmonic orchestra and expects a high level of performance from his team in return for generous working conditions.

The Burlington restaurant at the Devonshire Arms hotel in the Yorkshire Dales is another high-end special occasion restaurant that has reduced its opening times. Group managing director Richard Palmer says the coronavirus crisis encouraged them to consolidate six days of covers into four days. He found that customers were so grateful to be going out for a special meal, they were invariably flexible: "You're not open on a Tuesday? No problem, we'll book for Thursday then".

Richard Palmer
Richard Palmer

One key advantage of reduced opening times is that it eliminates the stress, especially among senior staff, of being away while the business is still operating.

"By closing three days a week you create a cut-off point so people know nothing can happen while they are away. You know that you are all going back to work on the same day, ready to go into battle. It's a big psychological difference," says Bains. He also notes that his team perform much better when the restaurant is busy. Previously, mistakes usually occurred on slow days.

Bains recognises that reduced opening times will not work for all. "If you're full every night and you take one whole night away, you'll lose money and that's just mad. I would never say that everyone can or should do it."

For busy venues with plenty of footfall, it's unlikely to work. But for destination venues with slow Mondays and Tuesdays, focusing on increasing your bookings over just four nights could be a good idea.

"Check your with your accountant and your financial records; check the logistics and your demographic. If you do all the research and it works, then jump in with both feet," advises Bains. "You're going to get happier staff and happier customers, a really efficient business, and you will thrive. It's probably the best move we've ever made."

Reduced or condensed working hours

A more common option is to reduce or condense employee working hours into four days while keeping the business open as long as required. Around two years ago, Douglas Waddell, operations director at Hand Picked Hotels, noticed that the kitchen at the Ettington Park hotel Stratford-upon-Avon had a particularly high staff turnover.

Douglas Waddell
Douglas Waddell

"It wasn't down to poor leadership, it was the competitive environment in Stratford-Upon-Avon with lots of good restaurants, so we thought there's got to be something we can do. We decided to implement a four-day week and it was transformational," he remembers.

The team is now much more stable and works a 45-hour week condensed into four days. "They really enjoy it. I'm sure it creates other pressure points like getting used to long days, but then you have three days off," comments Waddell. "When I looked at what we'd been spending on agencies and trying to fill gaps, it's definitely been a saving. It's been a win-win."

It creates other pressure points like getting used to long days, but then you have three days off

Chefs at another Hand Picked venue, Bailbrook House hotel in Bath, also work a four-day week. The intention was to roll out the policy to all 19 kitchens in early 2020, but then Covid-19 struck. Once the entire business has recovered and is busy again, Waddell says he intends to complete the new policy and look at extending it into other departments, such as front-of-house and housekeeping.

Chefs in two kitchens at Devonshire Hotels & Restaurants have also moved to a four-day week. Again, the reason was high staff turnover. Palmer explains: "We were very honest and we asked them: ‘What can we do to try and make this industry more of a long-term viable career option for you?' and they all said: ‘Better work-life balance.'"

In the first full year of the policy, kitchen staff turnover fell from more than 100% to 20%. "The cost of recruitment is significant, but it's not just about making that saving. It's the continuity of work, of having the same people in the door every day so you're not having to rebrief and retrain. We've seen our margins, our food quality and our customer service scores all improve because it's a well-oiled team that's used to working together," says Palmer.

Alan Merryweather, business owner of the Black Horse pub in Aylestone, Leicester, moved his full-time employees to a four-day, 35-hour week last summer, with cross-training resulting in greater flexibility. He says: "If any of the full-timers are on holiday, we only have to cover four days. If anybody is ill or wants a day off or to swap shifts, there is so much more flexibility. All my full-timers have been with me for at least three years." Even when the pub was busier than ever thanks to the Eat Out To Help Out scheme, Merryweather felt it was important to stick with the four-day policy.

Covid influences that are here to stay

As with click and collect, picnic hampers and other innovations, Covid-19 has made operators adopt new working practices that could have long-term benefits. Palmer says: "Covid has opened our eyes to reinventing the wheel a little. One of the things the curfew brought on was a real benefit for the team to finishing early. While that was Covid-induced, it's an initiative that I would like to see maintained if we can encourage the customer to follow it."

Bains agrees: "I think the earlier finishing times are something we're going to adopt in the future, because it is nice to see the staff not there until two in the morning. We want people to be very happy and one way is seeing staff leave at midnight and coming back to the restaurant fresh the next day. I think Covid has been an opportunity to rewrite the rules."

Another new practice is to allocate breakfast sittings for hotel guests. "Now it's become the new norm, which means we don't need to have the team stood around from 7am on Sunday mornings waiting for all the guests to walk down for breakfast at 9.45am," says Palmer.

Since Devonshire Hotels & Restaurants' guest profile is predominantly domestic leisure, Palmer is confident it will be busy immediately after lockdown ends, as it was last summer.

He sees work-life balance policies as good ways to attract new talent from the events and airlines industries, which will have a slower recovery. "We've already had a couple of people join us from the airlines and that was a quick and easy transfer of skills," he says.

He also sees the four-day week as important in making the industry sustainable for junior team members. "If you're a teenager and you see your head chef working 70 to 90 hours a week, as they were when I was training, you think: ‘How does he do it? How does he have time for his children, for a social life?' And you leave because there are other careers that provide those out-of-work benefits," he says.

You become disillusioned and you leave because there are other careers that provide those out-of-work benefits

The road to reopening and recovery is unlikely to be smooth and straight, and flexibility will remain essential. The four-day working week could help negotiate the bumps, as well as being an effective long-term strategy.

How to move to a four-day week

A four-day week can apply to opening times or working hours. Its purpose is to increase employee wellbeing and productivity.

A 2019 survey by Henley Business School found:

  • Two-thirds of firms who adopted a four-day week saw productivity upturns

  • 78% reported happier workers

  • 70% found workers were less stressed

  • 62% saw staff taking fewer days off sick.

If one of your departments has high staff turnover, ask what might improve their situation. Be open to their ideas. A four-day week could be the solution.

Moving to a four-day week will require a detailed feasibility study of operational costs, sales revenue, booking patterns, location and customer profile.

Calculate how much sales revenue you produce for every £1 spent on labour and see how this varies across the days of the week. Forecast your daily demand as accurately as possible.

Use low-cost tech solutions to simplify work processes, scheduling and rostering.

Once you go ahead, be open and honest with all of your staff about what is happening and why.

Working compressed hours (eg four 10-hour shifts instead of five eight-hour shifts) may not result in the required benefits.

Ideally, employees work reduced hours for no loss of pay and an uptick in productivity makes this achievable. But in uncertain times, a four-day week can make savings on payroll and overheads.

The recruiter's view

Paula Rogers
Paula Rogers

Paula Rogers, owner of Admiral Group, says: "I suspect there will be a surge in demand for pubs, restaurants and hotels once lockdown ends, but there is a question over how ready the workforce will be. There have been hundreds of thousands of job losses, and many have left the UK.

"The jobs market could become competitive far quicker than expected. Covid-19 has changed people's attitudes and behaviours.

"The four-day week is a great way to retain staff and protect jobs. It's thinking out of the box and accepting that nothing is the norm anymore. Think of a general manager position for a business open seven days a week. The employer might feel: ‘I can't possibly have someone four days a week.' But if your business is not going to be busy 100% of the time, then why not?

"The pandemic has forced us to be agile and innovative. Employers who embrace the flexible workforce of the future will come out winning."

Employers who embrace the flexible workforce of the future will come out winning

Featured photo: Shutterstock

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