Is the four-day working week possible (or even desirable) in hospitality?

The  Staff Canteen

Is the four-day working week the solution to an industry badly in need of a break, or will it merely pile more pressure on an industry struggling to recruit? 

By Angela Byrne, founder, Ginger Hospitality Recruitment

Steam hisses above a busy prep station in the Devonshire Arms Hotel & Spa’s Burlington Restaurant. A chef carefully but efficiently scrapes potatoes. At another station, one chops shallots in a seriously specific way – separating each leaf, then carefully peeling off the inner membrane and cutting the leaves into 2mm cubes. The calm outside belies the intensity inside to be ready for service. But the staff here seem focused and content. Does it have something to do with the 3 AA Rosette restaurant’s ‘four-day week’ policy?

Stress

Like thousands around the UK, this service follows immense disruption in hospitality. In our chaotic world, the restaurant is a refuge where people come to find joy and happiness.

But behind the scenes of many venues, the pressure of working in hospitality seems to be at boiling point. Staff absences in hospitality for December were 5.5 percent, almost double the national average of 2.7 percent (ONS, Jan 2021), and a surge in cancellations at the end of last year piled pressure on the industry.

Staff vacancies are also high: there are more unfilled jobs in hospitality than in any other sector. These stresses have brought staff wellbeing into sharper focus than ever. And one of the measures discussed more than ever is the four-day week. Is it the solution to an industry badly in need of a break, or will it merely pile more pressure on an industry struggling to recruit?

Staff welfare

The Devonshire Arms is a group of luxury hotels and restaurants across Yorkshire and Derbyshire. Its managing director, Richard Palmer, sees staff welfare as key to attracting and retaining the best talent.

“We have implemented a four-day working week for all of our teams from senior level down,” Palmer said. “But the problem currently is that we have enough staff to facilitate that four-day working week, a problem we’re solving with specialist recruiter Ginger Hospitality. Working with them, we’re backfilling the kitchen with relief chefs, whilst finding the right permanent talent.”

“But staff welfare comes first, flexibility is becoming a key part of that, and filling the extra permanent positions to accommodate a four-day week is the next piece of the puzzle. It’s a sector that’s about bringing pleasure into people’s lives, so helping hospitality staff be happy at work is all-important.”

For some, shorter weeks raise concerns about consistency

Craig Jackson spent more than 20 years in hospitality, latterly as a general manager, before moving into talent. As the head of permanent at Ginger Hospitality Recruitment, he is uniquely placed to see the needs of both talent and recruiter, and he thinks that for certain chefs, reduced hours don’t always equal happier staff.

“What I hear from senior chefs is that they're not massive fans of four day working weeks for themselves,” Jackson says. “They really want to be in the kitchen five days a week to have control over their vision, standards and creativity. It’s about consistency for them. And the passion for being in the kitchen and being a chef can sometimes rub against the trend towards a four-day week.”

The roots of the four-day week

The four-day week previously gained steam in the 2019 election, when then-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn put cutting the number of days we work at the centre of his manifesto. But this month, trials for a four-day week began in earnest with 30 companies from different sectors trying it out (the participating firms haven’t been announced). The trial is hoped to show greater productivity, improved work/life balance, reduced burnout and increased staff retention.

In hospitality, flexibility is crucial

David Edwards is the executive chef at Brunning and Price, which runs 79 gastropubs. “We want to do it. But it’s not always possible,” he said. “Across the entirety of our portfolio, there's just not enough staff to do so. However, in the sites that can do it, it's actually working really well.”

Despite not being able to offer a four-day week in all its 79 gastropubs, Brunning and Price is extremely flexible in terms of the working contracts it is able to offer its employees. Indeed, this flexibility is far more important to many employees than a one-size-fits-all four-day week policy.

So, for example, although a four-day working week might work well for one chef, some chefs prefer to work five day working weeks, because that suits their lifestyle better.

Edwards continued: “Flexibility allows work to fit around our people’s lifestyle. Staff with childcare commitments prefer to do five days in terms of the shift patterns that they offer.”

Split shifts are coming back, due to the flexibility they offer. “Not everybody wants to be doing straight shifts,” suggests Edwards, “despite them being pushed in the industry. We offer them, of course, but for people that have lifestyle commitments in the afternoon, split shifts over five days are a better way of working.”

Although the four-day week is gaining some momentum, only 3-5 percent of British businesses have adopted it so far, and a hard-and-fast rule around it seems suited to typical, 9-5 office jobs. In hospitality, supporting staff welfare and wellbeing - whilst accommodating lifestyle needs - might mean being open to more than a one-size-fits-all approach.

Craig Jackson added: “Brunning and Price is one of the best at accommodating their workforce,” he said. “Where they can’t do four-day weeks, they have contracted 48 hour working weeks for their sous-chefs, but they pay them overtime up to 55 hours.”

That’s a boon for junior chefs. Anyone below the rank of sous (i.e. trainees and CVPs) is on a 45 hour working week, but gets paid overtime for anything over that. “And for many up-and-coming chefs, the work is a calling, and they want to work every hour they can, so being able to work longer and actually get paid for extra hours is great. Overall, we’re seeing more flexibility, in various guises, in the hospitality sector than ever.” 

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 21st February 2022

Is the four-day working week possible (or even desirable) in hospitality?