It’s been quite interesting watching the dust settle on some of the bold claims made this conference season. A rallying cry to boost productivity from the Conservatives is definitely something a lot of fellow SMEs like ours want to hear. But how we do it is also something we all want to know the answer to. I believe it’s a question no one person, organisation or political party has an answer for. It will take a combination of technology, skill and policy.
One policy offered by Labour was the four-day week. That ambition struck me for a number of reasons but mainly because making it law in 10 years feel like a very short timeframe for the majority of businesses, especially for those providing front line services.
It’s true that early adopters of automation, to some degree already enjoy the benefits of more flexibility in the working week. We can work anywhere in the world, and we have better levels of productivity and profits to show for it. This saving in time and money is reinvested in the company to grow it further, such is the mindset of the early adopter and that’s good for employment and Great Britain PLC.
Moving to a four day week – though proven to help all facets of life from improved mental health, stronger family units to employee loyalty – still takes a lot of people power to sustain levels of growth. And I think that’s what will be hard to swallow. Essentially the companies that have been able to invest in technology to make their businesses more productive will be hit with rising staff costs to sustain momentum, and to put it bluntly, I can’t see an easy way to offset that and reverse Britain’s productivity slide at the same time.
So, if the more progressive companies will struggle, then those who have yet to embrace technology will definitely struggle. Their staff costs will rise, but just because they have more brains, doesn’t mean they’re going to suddenly have the capability to implement automation. If the leadership isn’t ready or willing to go digital, then having more people won’t change the situation. In short, this policy would simply kill them off, like a hard frost.
And then there’s the bit in the middle. Companies who need to perfectly align their automation strategy with government policy to keep it neutral. For them there is some hope, but they would still find it hard to keep things balanced.
And really it doesn’t matter which camp you are in, the ultimate challenge for small businesses is what if your clients expect 5 day service, yet policy says your team can only work 32 hours max? It means you’ve got to find the cash to recruit someone for that extra day. Which means you’ll probably pass the cost on to your clients. Which leads to inflation. And no one wants to add that to the mix at this stage in our history.
So, you can see it’s a real area of debate and while I’m not against a four day week, I think there are other things we can do first, which are more about the carrot and less about the stick.
Things that would help are policies that encourage companies to adopt more flexible working practices and access to sabbaticals, through better more accessible grants to develop and buy the technology that will improve productivity, to access to training, and policies that support families that want to work. These are the things that would help us achieve growth, productivity gains and more balance to our day.
It will be interesting to see what November brings, my hope is it’s a range of policy that supports business and family life rather than breaks it.
By James Poyser, CEO of Provestor