PR pro Debbie Smith looks at the evidence as she considers whether the four-day working week is a realistic goal. Could it give regional agencies an edge when it comes to recruitment?

We are currently seeing a series of conflicting reports about optimum working hours hit the headlines in the UK. On one side of the debate are companies who’ve successfully introduced a four day working week, whilst others, such as science research foundation the Wellcome Trust, considered this but subsequently dropped plans to trial it because it would be “too operationally complex to implement”. Other organisations are trying (and in some cases failing) to implement unlimited holiday. On the other side of the debate is the head of Chinese internet giant Alibaba, who advocated 12 hour days, six days a week for those who want to be successful. Known as 996 (i.e. working 9am-9pm, six days a week) this is apparently common in the country’s rapidly growing tech industry.  

Why is this relevant to the PR sector? Because research shows that we are at the forefront of the struggle to find the right balance between work and personal time – and that’s not just the always-on culture where we check our work messages all the time, but the actual working hours we spend at our desk or laptop. 

In November 2018 industry publication PR Week reported research showing that 27% of PRs are working overtime on a daily basis, more than double the proportion (12%) of the average British worker. Apparently the average PR practitioner in the UK will work two full days (15 hours) every month on top of their scheduled hours, equating to 24 days’ unpaid work a year. That includes freelancers – we are joint second in the overtime stakes, alongside agency group account directors but not quite as bad as agency CEOs and owners. This is having a serious impact on staff well-being.

Fortunately, alternatives are emerging in the agency world. For example, the head of a PR agency in Gloucester in the south-west of England has introduced a four day working week without reducing pay. He says that as a result margins have not changed, while sick days have reduced (down 75% in the first six months) and staff are happier. He points out that Fridays were largely spent collating results and reports, and technology now means that this takes much less time, so the day was not very productive. Hence the change is not as dramatic as it might at first appear.

Dig a little deeper, though, and it’s not as clear cut. PR means deadlines, last minute journalist requests and the occasional client crisis. What if these happen on a Friday? The Gloucester agency uses WhatsApp groups for each client, which have enabled them to handle anything urgent, and the MD admits that he ‘feels the benefits less’ than his team. This of course means that, although you are free to do other activities on a Friday, you can’t be far from your phone. And the MD is putting in extra hours – which no doubt the head of Alibaba would say was perfectly natural! The agency has also reduced actual holiday time by 20%, lunch hours to 45 minutes, and staff will work on the Friday in a week where there’s a bank holiday Monday. To use a cliché, this demonstrates that there is no such thing as a free lunch.

However, while this initiative has its pros and cons, I think it’s a welcome change and shows an agency prepared to move away from the culture of presenteeism which has been a big part of PR for many years, and which I’ve experienced first-hand in both London and regional PR agencies.

As a freelancer, I’ve chose to step away from traditional working hours and inflexible holidays to achieve a work-life balance that suits me. This doesn’t mean that I automatically work shorter hours, but I can aim for a balance that meets my financial, professional and personal needs. As my freelance colleague Lianne pointed out in a previous blog, good relationships with like-minded clients helps. For them, the benefits of working with an experienced freelancer outweigh the occasional absences and the emails sent late at night. Careful planning and being organised beforehand are essential. And working as part of the Comms Crowd freelance collective means that I can take holidays away from my email safe in the knowledge that our clients will be well looked after. 

We can’t all be freelancers, but I hope that discussions of four days weeks and the importance of a good work-life balance to mental health will make traditional agencies think hard about their inflexible approach. Perhaps it’s most applicable to regional agencies – as the Gloucester agency head points out, his margins are higher than those of a London agency, which no doubt was a factor in making his initiative work. This could be a smart move for other regional agencies, who often struggle to recruit staff, and the catalyst that finally moves PR in the UK away from its stubbornly London-centric base. After all, the days when you needed to be in London to meet journalists face to face are long gone.

Most of all, I hope this empowers PRs to challenge traditional working practices. We’re a creative industry, so we need time to step back and recharge our batteries if we’re to deliver the best results.

This article has been submitted by The Comms Crowd.