When Barcelona-based fashion label Desigual asked its corporate employees to vote on reducing their work week to four days and incur a 6.5 percent salary cut, the company thought it was “ambitious” to expect two-thirds of the staff to approve.
Ultimately, 86 percent of the 500 employees surveyed at the company’s Barcelona headquarters voted in favour of the plan, which also allows them to work from home one day per week.
“Covid has taught us that there are different ways of performing and organizing the job and we started thinking [beyond] just teleworking,” said Desigual chief executive Alberto Ojinaga. “We realized that [a four-day work week] is not only a good thing for our people to make them more happy and maybe even perform better, but also that we will become much more attractive in order to retain talent and attract external talent.”
As pandemic disruption forces fashion companies to reimagine the future of work, many are weighing a complex set of variables including employee demands for flexibility, an ongoing labour shortage, rising production costs and shrinking profits. Solving these challenges will require companies to think in unconventional ways and constantly test and refine whatever strategy they implement.
Desigual is among the first major fashion brands to adopt a four-day work week, though the concept has become popular in the tech and consumer goods sectors. Companies from Microsoft to Unilever and Shake Shack have experimented with the concept, though they offered their employees full pay.
“Great employees are really hard to come by right now,” said Stacey Widlitz, a retail advisor and founder of SW Retail. “If you can’t pay the most of any brand, maybe you can have other creative ways to say ‘we respect you and we care about your lifestyle and we are going to offer you quality of life’ … and [a four-day work week] is one of the ways to do it.”
Still, the strategy carries some risks. It requires companies to overhaul key business processes, invest in new technologies and talent and, even for enthusiastic employees, it may mean a radical restructuring of their workday. At Desigual, a one-month pilot of the four-day work week was “stressful” for many employees, and the company is still figuring out how it will make up for the lost day, Ojinaga said.
“There will be things we won’t be able to do; there will be things we will need to do in a more efficient way and there will be [areas] where we will need to hire more people,” he said.
Why a Four-Day Work Week
Fashion firms mulling over a four-day work week must be very clear on their objectives.
Bolt, a start-up that builds one-click checkout for companies like SwissGear and Lucky Brand, implemented a four-day work week in September hoping to boost efficiency and prevent burnout.
The company always gave unlimited paid time off and also started offering “wellness days” — where employees are encouraged to prioritise their mental health — but quickly realised those solutions put the onus on employees, who rarely took advantage of the policies, said Tina Fan, Bolt’s chief customer officer.
“At a fast-paced start-up ... there’s burnout and people are sprinting when it’s really a marathon,” she said, “So how do we balance that?”
The company launched in 2014 and this year doubled its staff 300, with plans to reach 500 employees by the end of the year. Bolt is viewing the four-day work as an experimental policy that will be adjusted based on the impact on employees’ mental wellness and the company’s productivity. Ahead of the implementation, Bolt had its employees re-evaluate things like recurring meetings to determine whether they were necessary and efficient, said Fan.
“[Having less time] fundamentally pushes you to function and think differently,” said Fan. “It pushes you to say, ‘Can I do things in a better way?’”
How to Make it Work
To make a four-day work week successful, companies will have to structure them so that they work for everyone. Employees generally want more flexibility and empathy from their employers. Companies need to maintain productivity, output and their bottom line.
Brands that are hyper-focused on pushing productivity in the four days employees are on — or that tack extra hours and work onto their employees’ schedule on those days — could miss out on the benefits of a shorter workweek.
“If there’s just too much work to physically be done within whatever time frame is designated, then it will be challenging for anyone to have their weekends free [much less] three days,” said Fan.
Companies that only offer the four-day work week with no other options risk hiccups with external vendors and manufacturers whose teams are not working on the same schedule. It’s also not an option for many employees in stores and warehouses. Desigual has roughly 2,700 employees and those who work in sales and operations were not eligible for the new schedule option.
Tying a shorter workweek to salary reductions can also reduce potential productivity and wellness gains, said Jack Kelly, executive recruiter and founder of WeCruitr.
“A pay cut attached to a shorter work week could backfire,” he said. “What’s the point if the employee has to pick up a part-time job [to compensate] for the day off?”
A four-day work week, if executed well, could be used as a prompt to eliminate trivial tasks and encourage employees to focus on their core responsibilities. It could also help those in creative and design roles free up mental space to look for inspiration and dream up new ideas for product and marketing campaigns.
“Is [a four-day workweek] actually helping people be more creative and do better work and come at harder problems in a different way?” said Fan. “That’s really the test.”