Could a four-day week unlock innovation for manufacturers?

Posted on 2 Oct 2023 by The Manufacturer

The pace of change is increasing in the manufacturing industry, driven by the pressure to innovate, remain competitive and retain the best staff. Everything from the use of technology to typical working patterns are under scrutiny as part of the sector’s evolution.

The sector has traditionally taken a cautious approach to change, although it has accelerated its journey towards Industry 4.0, digital transformation and automation over the last few years. But is it brave enough to embrace the latest thinking on flexible working? More specifically, can a four-day week model work in manufacturing?

People and the four-day week

The pandemic normalised remote and flexible working for many businesses. Wellbeing and avoiding burnout have also taken centre stage as companies recognise how crucial those elements are to retaining staff.

Campaigns to promote a four-day week saw a UK trial completed earlier this year. The trial proved largely successful for SMEs, particularly in service industries or where staff were carrying out similar tasks.

For the manufacturing sector, where production staff and office workers have very different responsibilities and working patterns, a one size fits all approach is almost impossible to either conceive or implement.

Facilitating flexible working for back-office functions may be more straightforward than rolling them out on a production line, but it could cause internal division and resentment. Maintaining production levels over a shorter period of time also requires a strategic rethink, particularly if companies throughout the supply chain also switch to a four-day model.

A change in working practices is a case of when, not if, however. According to our study  among 450 executives in European manufacturing businesses across the aerospace, automotive and energy sectors, 51% of respondents said they struggle to retain their most innovative employees. With burnout on the rise and half of respondents claiming they have never been under as much pressure to innovate as they are today, the danger is that the most talented staff will quit.

Innovation and the four-day week

The challenge for manufacturers is to view change as an opportunity to fuel innovation, not stifle it. 64% of the UK manufacturers in our study believe that a move to a more flexible working model would enhance their ability to innovate, as well as promoting wellbeing and increasing staff retention. 48% of them said that they urgently need to update their approach to innovation.

‘Flexible working’ is a broad term however – encompassing remote working, hybrid, compressed hours or the four-day week. And, while there’s an appetite to accommodate staff, there’s still a disconnect between that and how executives across the sector view flexible working with a degree of fear.

Despite recognising the value in giving employees the flexibility to work on their own terms, almost nine in 10 executives (86%) say the optimal environment for idea generation and collective problem-solving is being onsite for at least four days a week.

And while only 39% of our respondents said they thought a four-day week would be negative for the business, 78% said they might be forced to adopt a different manufacturing strategy if their own suppliers switched to a four-day working week. This shows there is still a lot of thinking to be done.

One option being considered to accommodate workforce flexibility while enabling innovation is to make onsite working essential in shorter periods, during intensive innovation sprints. Technology can also support the move towards more flexible working, with many companies now using collaborative robots (cobots), for example, to take on repetitive tasks. This can free up staff to spend their time more productively, potentially making more time offsite a possibility.

We’re at a crossroads for the sector. Manufacturers know they have to innovate to remain competitive and they need the best people on board to do this. But the best people want more flexibility. It’s not an issue that can be solved quickly and the challenge lies in the execution.

Companies across the industry are embracing innovation in their own way, but our study highlighted that manufacturing is entering a time of significant and, ultimately positive, change – 54% believe that their industry is entering a new ‘golden age’ of innovation.

Sticking with the status quo for fear of slowing down innovation might feel less painful in the short term, but finding new ways to innovate that consider the needs of your greatest innovators has to be the long-term goal.

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About the author

Bjoern Klaas – Vice President/General Manager and Managing Director – Europe, Middle East and Africa