For most people, the only thing they have to trade is their labour, which they exchange in return for the means to earn a living. That’s what it means to have a job and the law protects them from exploitation by capricious employers.
But do they also have a right to dignity and a sense of purpose at work? Should their employer be responsible for their happiness and wellbeing, as well as their livelihood?
It might seem obvious to say that employers should treat workers with consideration and respect. But how far should that social mission extend, and should it take precedence over commercial considerations?
Should low and unskilled workers receive the same benefits as those who have spent years studying and working hard to earn difficult qualifications and achieve the highest level of skills?
Those were some of the questions I grappled with when, as a business owner, I began the process of introducing a four-day week for all my team.
Around the same time as we introduced the four-day week, in October 2021, we also became a ‘remote-first’ employer, meaning that all of our team is now entitled to work from home permanently. The number of hours employees are required to work was reduced to 31, with no loss of earnings.
We retained our offices as a collaboration space and most of our staff use it from time-to-time, but they are not under any obligation to do so.
None of this is straightforward because, as a tech company our staff have complicated roles and managing knowledge workers in such a short week while not being in the same room has been a real test of our management approaches.
The four-day week was the most radical step I have taken with my business since launching it in 2013. It was also the biggest risk because, despite all of the research, preparation and collaboration that was done before the switch, I had no idea if it would work.
Some 18 months later, I’m still none the wiser. Don’t get me wrong, it has proved hugely popular with the staff and why wouldn’t it – the turkeys didn’t vote for Christmas – but I don’t know whether it has cost my business money.
That’s hard to assess because we couldn’t afford to pay for an expensive consultancy to come in and do a time-and-motion study, before and after.
We have grown and we continue to grow, doubling turnover in each of the past two years, but would we have performed better if we had not introduced the four-day week? I simply can’t say.
Our new system requires all staff to work for 80% of the working week and they can take the remaining 20% off when they choose, either as a full day, or by starting late or finishing early throughout the week.
While the changes have undoubtedly led to improvements in staff well-being and in their work-life balance, the jury is still out on the commercial benefits, if any, for the company.
It’s not that everyone has the same day off because that’s been shown to be a predictor of failure for these kinds of initiatives. If everyone just took Friday off, then our business wouldn’t work; we need to have continuity of presence across various departments.
A lot of research went into it and it was a very collaborative process, where I set out how the high-level approach we were taking and asked all the staff for their buy-in to how it would be implemented because I knew, if I didn’t do that, I was setting myself up for failure further down the line.
That’s not to say it’s been a screaming success. It has been tough at times, and when it comes to the commitments the team made in return for being given a day off, it’s true to say that they need to be reminded more than they need to be told.
At this point, I should say that in terms of working conditions, rewards and benefits, my company is certainly at the more progressive end of the scale.
At Cobry, we provide our staff with a range of perks and bonuses, including a profit-share programme, electric car and cycle-to-work subsidies and enhanced sick-pay and pension contributions.
Our CEO-to-median-worker salary ratio is less than 2:1, compared with more than 300:1 in some US companies, and everyone gets a profit-related bonus at the end of the financial year.
As a ‘carer positive’ employer, we have staff-run diversity and sustainability committees, we pay for employees’ computer equipment and broadband in their homes. We also provide them with two free books, of their choice, every month and free supplies of ‘green’ tea and coffee that are delivered to their homes every quarter. In addition, we organise regular social events for the team.
We have always been very thoughtful about what work is like and I wanted Cobry to be a ship of sanity. That’s not to say there is not a sound commercial rationale to the business culture we operate.
Offering generous terms and conditions and perks helps to address some of the challenges we have in recruiting and retaining talent – we don’t yet have the money to pay our people six figure salaries that might be available elsewhere.
It’s partly boxing clever, in making it easier to recruit and easier to retain, but it’s principally about recognising that people have lives and that we see them as more than cogs in a machine. They are whole people with whole lives and we want to acknowledge that and respect them, so that they have dignity and enjoy their lives and enjoy going to work.
We have a really big focus on people’s progression, though continued professional development. Nobody is ever turned down for training, development, or coaching. Many of our team arrived with little knowledge or experience – and that changes very quickly.
Some young people who haven’t had a job before joining us don’t perceive the conditions and rewards we offer as particularly unusual or better than average. I’ll admit that it can be refreshing when more experienced team members express their appreciation of how unusual all of it is.
I wouldn’t take any of it away because treating our team well is incredibly important to me. My aspiration isn’t to have a gold-plated Ferrari. I’m not motivated by that. I want my business to do well and for everyone to benefit from it.
Of course, if the business wasn’t profitable then all of the above would be irrelevant and nobody would benefit, so I insist that everyone’s focus is always on the commercial fundamentals. For me sales and marketing are the twin engines driving any business and they are prioritised above all else.
Whatever happens, the four-day week is here to stay at Cobry, because I genuinely believe that is the future of employment for every organisation. In the meantime, my immediate focus is on growing the business so that it can stay.