Four days means happy days at Watford Control

Posted on 11 Mar 2024 by Tom St John

In consecutive issues of The Manufacturer Magazine, we’ve spoken with companies that have implemented a four day working week. What led this particular manufacturer down its current path? From shift patterns aligned to outdated bus timetables, to upturns in productivity and profits, Tom St John hears the story of Watford Control Instruments.

In our last issue of 2023, I interviewed Samantha Johnson, Founder of Avalon Home and the more recent owner of Pintail Candles. She spoke proudly of how her companies operate successfully on four day production shift patterns – Monday to Thursday. This time around, it’s Watford Control, manufacturers of voltage stabilisers, founded in 1947, and since 2019, has operated on the same four days of the week, closing on Fridays.

Watford Control was first incorporated in 1947 by Stefan Brod. By all accounts, he was quite a man; a Czech refugee who was one of the lucky Jewish people in central Europe to escape the Nazis. He fought for the allies in World War Two as an RAF Depot Signals Officer in the Free Czech Airforce in England, which led to his involvement in the Battle of Britain.

But he was, first and foremost, a brilliant scientist. He started out in business manufacturing power supplies and precision timers for early X-ray machines and photographic equipment. He went on to launch his first electromechanical voltage stabiliser in 1952.

The world has changed since then. But, as Watford Control’s current Managing Director, Mark Massetti puts it, the company has a 77 year history of essentially doing the same thing. “Grids have changed,” he said. “They have probably got worse, really. But electricity hasn’t changed, and that’s why there’s still a market for our products.”

When busses ruled the shifts

Mark bought the business in May 2016, along with four other investors. The new ownership team were assured by the system management team that they would continue to run day-to-day operations. “And we left it running like this, but it wasn’t doing as well as we thought it would,” he said.

In response to this, the owners agreed they would merge some businesses, and that Mark would take over as Managing Director. After 1 January 2019, Mark was running the show. “I had to actually start paying attention to the business,” he joked. “But there was one thing I really couldn’t get my head around – the working hours.”

15 Amp Rotavolts at Watford Control

In the early noughties, there were apparently 70 people working at the Watford Control facility in Corby. Operating days ran from 8:10am to 4:55pm Monday to Thursday, and then 8:10am to 3:10pm on Friday, with 45 minutes for lunch. This baffled Mark.

“I wasn’t even sure if I was reading it right! The reason shifts were done this way was because of the bus timetable.” The company had run its shifts this way for the past 30 to 40 years. The buses came past the factory, workers were able to finish their shifts, wash their hands, get changed and walk out in time to jump on a bus. Seemed perfectly logical to me. Until Mark explained: “Those busses are long gone! The route hasn’t run past this estate for years.”

Four days? Happy days

So, with workers clocking off in time to catch a bus that no longer ran, Mark felt the business needed a rethink on shift patterns. “There was a lot of news starting to come out about four day working weeks, particularly with tech companies,” said Mark. “And this was the year before COVID, so this was before the majority of people were calling for work-life balance, and wanting to work from home.

“And with the greatest of respect to those companies, I always found this a little unfair. I always thought if you’re working class, you do 9.00-5.00. The middle management get their work-life balance. But chefs, waiters, plasterers, electricians, etc, can’t work from home.

“I always saw it as a bit of a challenge. I looked at those hours and I thought, with a little bit of tweaking, I could offer people something radical here.” Going to four days would have meant cutting production by 20%, which, no matter how radical Mark wanted to be, he simply couldn’t do.

“My margins aren’t that high,” he said. “We haven’t got that money to throw around; we’re not Google.” The challenge for Mark then, was to make this work in a normal business. It came down to finding the right blend of staff preference, and ensuring profitability. Or, as he put it, “Making sure we don’t go out of business.”

He continued: “They were doing 38.25 hours a week – weird hours. I gave them the option to select the working hours, and a vote was taken. So hence, it became 7:00am until 5:00pm Monday to Thursday, half hour for lunch – 38 hours a week. They voted for it straightaway, so we just started doing it.”

Finding the right blend

Since moving to four days a week, Watford Control has seen an increased turnover of 30% and profits by 50%. And, as an advocate of this established shift pattern, and having worked this way for five years now, it would be easy for Mark to say it’s all down to that. The reality, as you would imagine, is that strong financial gains is down to a blend of business factors.

As Mark points out: “You can work a four day week and still have poor output.” He elaborated: “A four day week is not just about working four days a week, there’s lots more that needs to be taken into account.” Central to driving productivity from the factory floor, is Production Manager Darryl McPhedran.

Power Saver for Link Centre Swindon - Watford Control

Mark attested to his leadership qualities being a huge factor. It was also, quite rightly pointed out, that if the business’ prices are wrong and its marketing doesn’t resonate, then it’s not going to sell anything. Success hasn’t just come about from production; office staff, who incidentally work five days a week, have played their part. “But they’re able to work from home, they have other benefits,” Mark pointed out.

Watford Control seems to have found the right formula for success, with every arm functioning successfully to create a well-oiled machine. Whether that’s production operating on four day shifts, or other departments working five days. Darryl was modest in the face of praise from Mark, however. When it comes to productivity, he believes the four day week is the catalyst.

“Productivity on the shopfloor is higher now because morale is higher,” he explained. “That comes from knowing you’ve got the Friday off work. “Motivation is much higher because energy levels are better. Everywhere I’ve worked has been five day shift patterns. By the time you get to later in the day on a Friday, you’re knackered and productivity drops.”

The draw of fewer days

This sentiment appears to be shared by employees. In an industrial landscape where talent is hard to acquire and retain, the pull of fewer days for similar money can only be a positive. “We’re going through an interview process at the moment,” said Mark. “This is with somebody who used to work for us, and we’d like him to come back. He’s got a couple of irons in the fire with some big companies showing an interest in him. But he’s saying that four day weeks is a really big pull.”

Watford Control’s employees are now used to having Fridays to themselves, so the company has seen good retention of staff in recent years. When I asked this question, Mark turned to Darryl: “When was the last time someone left the factory?” The pair then started reeling off names of people who had been with the company not less than two years. And some who had done long stints and left before 2019, have come back upon hearing the company had moved to a four day week.

Sixteen people work at the site in Corby, and as names were being ticked off, it appeared that almost half of them had racked up over ten years of service, at least. The most impressive example came from a gentlemen called Collin, who’s in his 50th year of employment. Having retired after 48 years, he then came back on part-time hours. The company still had his offer letter from 50 years ago, and in a touching gesture, framed it and presented it to him. “When he joined, he was on 86p an hour,” said Mark. “He’s on a bit more than that now!”

There were more names listed; Jamie left, then came back and has now done over 20 years. Head of engineering, Chris, is on his second stint. “They’ve all come back for the four day week,” said a chuckling Darryl.

Help to Grow: Management

A factor in supporting Watford Control’s move to a four day week was the Help to Grow Management course. This resource provides training to help SME business leaders increase productivity, seize investment opportunities and grow their business. To find out more, visit Help to Grow: Management course

Younger talent still an issue

Watford Control has built up a loyal and highly skilled workforce, and for a company that is specialised, and produces at lower volumes, it’s found a well suited method of operating. That said, the company still faces those industry wide, regularly reported issues that persist when it comes to attracting younger people. As mentioned earlier in the article, the AC voltage stabilisers that Watford Control specialise in haven’t changed fundamentally over the years. The process has been made smarter, however.

There are only two people in the world that know how to make Watford Control’s base technology. They both work at the Corby factory; one of them is 40, the other is 66. Therefore, skilled engineers are needed as the old guard begins to think about retirement. Even with the draw of a four day week, the struggle for young talent has left Mark with the conclusion that: “People don’t want to do engineering.”

CNC machine at Watford Control

Mark says he’s endeavored to bring young blood into the company in the past, but bad experiences led him to his current stance. “Over a three to four month period, we were only looking to recruit young people, 19 year old kids, people that we could develop.” It sounds like there were issues with discipline, with Mark setting out clear ground rules during interviews, which were routinely broken.

“I told them, there are three things that you must never do; don’t be late, don’t go off sick and don’t use your mobile phone in the factory, because it’s a breach of health and safety. And unfortunately, all three rules were broken.” He continued, “Unfortunately, it’s the older generation that know the meaning of reliability and dependability. And I don’t think young people really want to work in our industry; they want to be bloggers and influencers living in Dubai.

“Whereas, we want people who know how to wire a piece of equipment, or at least, people who are interested in learning those skills. But it’s just not fashionable anymore.”

Do what is right for you

So, as expected, the four day working week doesn’t solve every business problem. And indeed, the companies that we’ve come across that operate in this way are more specialised, lower volume, with more manual processes in place than those of a bigger company. Brompton Bicycle works off four day shift patterns, but Bromptons are bespoke products. High quality, but lower volume.

Similarly, Avalon Home and Pintail Candles have small workshops in the North West. For its size, it punches above its weight in terms of manufacturing output, but naturally, it doesn’t produce nearly as many units as homeware giants like DFS or Dunelm.

Crisp manufacturer, Tayto, has a factory just across the road from Watford Control. This is a huge facility, with around 800 people on-site. Mark and Darryl almost winced at the thought of having to manage four day shift patterns in a factory of that size. “It would be a lot harder to manage 38 hours into four days for that many people,” said Darryl.

But a company like Tayto can afford to lose the odd team member. At Watford Control, with only 16 people on-site, and with the difficulties it has had attracting new talent, the loss of just one worker is felt profoundly. That’s not only just over six percent of its workforce gone, but it’s years of training lost. Therefore, retention is clearly everything at Watford Control. It prides itself on this, and it achieves it through, as Mark puts it, “Not offering silly money, but more of a lifestyle.”

He continued, “I’d love to run a 24 hour operation, because if I could triple my profits, that would be great. But we’re niche, the market isn’t necessarily there. So, we’re going for a high quality business and that works for all of us. Where do you want to take your business? I guess that’s the question you need to ask yourself.”


  • There is a clear sense of camaraderie within the Watford Control team
  • Four day weeks don’t make companies automatically successful. That said, when it comes to morale and employee fatigue, it’s had a hugely positive impact in this case
  • The failed attempt of recruiting younger employees was unfortunate. Some might find Mark’s take a little cynical, but he’s simply sharing his experience. We’ve heard similar before
  • The four day week does appear to be better suited to smaller businesses. While any business should be flexible with its employees, it would be infinitely harder to manage at bigger manufacturing companies

For more news and articles similar to this, visit our People & Skills section