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Will a 4-day work week attract top talent? UK call centre trials the concept

Insurance call centre, Simply Business, to switch from 37.5-hour week to 30 hours with no affect on salary

Simply Business, which sells insurance to landlords and small businesses and employs more than 500 people in its high-pressure call centre, will launch a trial from September involving call operators in its Northampton contact centre, which could lead to 250 people getting an extra day off each week.

The Guardian reports that Simply Business bosses say they recognise that call centre jobs are “intense” and hope the change could improve employee wellbeing.

Last month, the Wellcome Trust scrapped its plans to do the trial, saying it wasn’t a fair experiment as its 800 Head Office workers had such varied roles and the logistics of organising wouldn’t be fair or equal to all staff.

But Simply Business, which is owned by the multibillion-dollar US insurance firm Travelers, has been reassured by discussions with executives from Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand financial services business that switched to a four-day week last year and claims it has boosted productivity.

A Brighton recruitment consultancy, MRL, has also announced that from this month its 56 staff will work Monday to Thursday for the same pay. Its chief executive, David Stone, said: “I want to hire people who are good enough to do five days of work in four.”

General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress, Frances O’Grady, has said a four-day week is a realistic goal for most people by the end of this century, and Labour has now commissioned the historian Robert Skidelsky to investigate the merits of the idea.

In 1930 the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that by now everyone would work a 15-hour week and spend the rest of their time at leisure. But since the financial crisis, working hours have risen in the UK as declining wages have forced people to try to take on more work to keep up with inflation.

Debs Holland, the general manager of the Simply Business call centre, said: “Working in our contact centre is really hard. You have very little autonomy. In the rest of the business, people have significant flexibility. I believe we should create a world where they have the advantage we have.”

Of course, productivity will be paramount during a shorter working week and the move from a 37.5-hour week to a 30-hour week will require a 20% increase in productivity if business performance is not to suffer. Bosses believe greater use of data analytics and web and email contact means fewer calls should be needed.

Asked why the company did not simply bank these productivity gains as profit and lay off workers who typically earn £26,000 a year, Holland said: “This is about sharing the upside with our people and creating a workplace which is as great as it can be.”

“We’ve got lots of people who enjoy horse riding or go fishing but we also have lots of people with caring responsibilities,” Holland said. “For them it is potentially life-changing.”

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