Two workers glide between a computer screen and a stainless steel vat making face cream, a scientist in a white coat mixes a formula and a colleague sticks labels on bottles.
Apart from the whir of machines, there is silence: this is “deep work time” at British skincare maker Five Squirrels when staff strive to boost productivity so they can take Fridays off and still get a full week’s pay.
Owner Gary Conroy said his 15 workers had smashed through their targets since switching to the shorter week last June and introducing four-hour periods each day when they ignore emails, don’t answer phone calls and turn off instant messaging.
What may seem an eccentric experiment is one of a number of trials of four-day working that has drawn interest from economists and businesses keen to find a solution to a slowdown in productivity growth in Britain and other Western economies.
Productivity – or economic output per hour worked – grew at an average of just over 2% a year in Britain from the 1970s until the run-up to the financial crisis, underpinning a steady rise in living standards.
But between 2010 and 2019, it averaged just 0.75% and the Bank of England forecasts it will remain weak over the next few years, partly due to more red tape since Brexit.
In that context, cramming the same output into a four-day week represents the equivalent of a decade’s worth of productivity gains before the mid 2000s slowdown – and in the case of Five Squirrels, there’s a happier workforce too.
Everyone was pounding through their work from Monday to Thursday to make sure that Friday, it was definitely going to happen,” said production executive Lilly Ellis, 21. “It was really easy to keep that energy up as well. It’s not really dropped off.”