Automation: sharing the spoils

Written by: Jessica Furseth Posted: 28/01/2019

BL60_Automation illoThe benefits of technological advancement have traditionally gone straight to the business bottom line, but some companies are starting to share the payoffs – with impressive results

Had John Maynard Keynes been right, we would have been working 15 hours a week by now. In 1930, the economist anticipated that technological advancements in ‘progressive countries’ would mean we’d be enjoying more leisure.

But it hasn’t happened – even though data is now automatically inputted, documents effortlessly shared across devices, reports instantly assembled and hardware spontaneously alerts us when it needs attention. In spite of warnings that automation will put people out of work, Britons put in some of the longest hours in Europe, racking up £32bn worth of unpaid overtime, according to a Trades Union Congress (TUC) survey from September 2018. 

People resent spending so much of their time working – 81% want to work less, the TUC found, and of those, about half would love to have a four-day working week. The TUC has thrown its weight behind this idea, hailing it as a way to ensure productivity gains are distributed fairly. 

“Bosses and shareholders must not be allowed to hoover up all the gains from new tech for themselves. Working people deserve their fair share,” TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said in a statement. “If productivity gains from new technology are even half as good as promised, then the country can afford to make working lives better.” 

But would working four days a week while being paid the same salary as before actually work? Initial reports suggest a four-day week may lead to improved productivity, even with fewer hours in the office. 

Researchers at Auckland University of Technology tracked a four-day week initiative at the 240-staff-strong trustee company Perpetual Guardian, based in New Zealand. They found that staff were less stressed and reported being more motivated and committed to their work, which in turn resulted in better performance. 

The findings of the study, which took place in March and April 2018, make sense. Some 12.5 million UK work days were lost in 2017 because of work-related stress, depression or anxiety, according to the UK Health and Safety Executive, and the single biggest cause was workload. 

Early experimenters

The fact that a four-day working week has been floated at this point in time is no coincidence – we are finally at a stage of technological advancement where it might actually be possible. 

Several businesses in the UK have already implemented such an initiative. And while their altruistic goal is to share the spoils of technological advancement, they also believe it serves their businesses well financially.  

For Nautoguide, a digital mapping company in Swindon with five employees, the decision to move to a four-day week in September 2018 was motivated by a desire to have more time to work on strategic goals. 

“We had a project we really wanted to deliver long term as an investment, but we never got around to it because we were always firefighting,” says Dave Barter, CEO and Founder of Nautoguide. The company realised the answer wasn’t to have more resources or to be more efficient, but to have more time to think. 

“When you’re all in the office, you never [take that thinking time] because the phone rings, emails come in and people want things. The only way we could see to achieve that was by taking ourselves out of the office.”

The staff at Nautoguide now work regular hours Monday to Thursday and Barter thinks it’s fostered an appreciation that this is a place where you get rewarded for your good work right now, rather than maybe someday. 

“I think there’s also a benefit to being seen as having an open and forward-thinking culture, as [clients] see that and understand it will translate to our work too,” says Barter. 

Rich Leigh is the Director and Founder of Radioactive PR, a public relations firm with 12 staff in Gloucester. “I’ve got incredibly happy staff,” says Leigh, who started the four-day week initiative six months ago. The company is making more money than ever, although the initiative has made a difference to margins as Leigh has had to hire sooner than he might otherwise have done, as he doesn’t want to “squeeze five days into four”. 

The initiative has made the company an attractive place to work, Leigh says. “We get so many CVs. Inevitably we’ll be finding the very best people.” 

Becky Simms, CEO and Founder of Reflect Digital, a marketing agency in Kent with a staff of 55, has also found that business has been good since moving to a four-day working week in October. “We’ve closed the most business and had the most revenue,” she says. 

The firm wanted staff to be at their best in the office, says Simms, who adds that agency work is high pressure. “You’re really worn out by the time you reach the weekend. [The four-day week] was inspired by that buzz you get after the three-day weekend. Now we can have that time to relax, but still really work hard while we’re in the office.” 

Experiments with four-day weeks are less common in the Channel Islands because they’re “not as advanced as the UK in terms of digital transformation”, says Pierre Jehan, Client Services Director of Guernsey IT outsourcing specialist Resolution IT. 

Pointing to the 2,000 vacancies in the Guernsey finance sector alone, Jehan says it’s clear that automation has a role to play in closing this gap. But businesses haven’t embraced it yet, and with talent shortages being as they are, employers may be reluctant to offer staff a day off each week. 

Other benefits

However, Channel Islands staff are reaping other rewards from automation and digital transformation, with opportunities for remote working and flexible hours. As Jehan explains: “Automation can also make workers’ lives more enjoyable by taking away the mundane tasks, making them more efficient, and letting them concentrate on the nicer aspects of their job.” 

Jehan strongly believes in rewarding the people who create savings through the use of technology. “Companies, in whatever sector, should empower staff to use these technologies in order to become more efficient and innovative through digital transformation. And in the same breath, they should also reward their staff for doing so,” he says. 

Fundamental issues

While agreeing that Channel Island companies should be looking to robotic process automation or artificial intelligence to overcome worker shortages, Justin Bellinger, Chief Digital Officer of telecommunications supplier Sure, thinks fundamental issues need to be addressed before the four-day working week will make it onto the agenda. 

This will include tutoring and retraining. “We need to work out what machines can do that will benefit our businesses. What do I want my people doing instead of manual input? The answer will be more interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence – things that will add value beyond the basic grind.” 

This has already started happening in the Channel Islands, says Bellinger, pointing to the fund insurance and trust sectors. “As we come under ever-increasing regulatory scrutiny in the financial services sector, I firmly believe that regulators will start to automate compliance. We’ve already started to see that in the gaming industry.” 

Proponents of the four-day working week have an uphill battle ahead to convince business leaders that more time away from the desk could actually mean better overall job performance. 

But as Bellinger points out: “How long that person has spent at their desk is a false way of looking at productivity. We’re not working at cotton mills anymore.” 

Research backs this up. When a Swedish retirement home ran a six-hour working day experiment in 2016, it found that its nurses were less stressed, got sick less often and had more energy to spend on their patients. Most people can only focus for five or six hours a day before fatigue sets in, so it’s a fallacy to think that keeping them in the office longer will get more out of them.

For Radioactive PR’s Leigh, the change to a four-day working week has positioned his company as forward-looking and innovative. “We’ve had clients come to us as a direct result of this, saying they like the fact that we don’t just talk the talk, but walk the walk too,” he says. 

Ultimately, Leigh wants to ensure that his staff are happy. “These are people you spend the majority of your life with. Why wouldn’t you want to give them the best time that you can?”

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