But now the idea is starting to spread. As we report today (see cover), Simmons & Simmons is also trialling this in its projects practice. However, there’s a fair amount of inbuilt resistance to four-day weeks, for exactly the same reasons advanced by many at the height of the boom. Transactional departments – or so goes the argument – simply can’t manage on a four-day week; it suits pensions and employment groups better. The trouble is, at the moment there aren’t many transactions and the pensions and employment groups are the busiest ones around.
The four-day debate may obscure what is the most workable option – that of sabbaticals. Norton Rose’s proposal of sabbaticals on 30 per cent of salary is attractive, as having people out for a defined chunk of time is a whole lot easier to manage.
Whatever happens, current salary levels are uneconomic. I’ve spoken to three firms which have investigated salary cuts but which have shied away from the PR risk. People still mention the story from the early 1990s when McKenna & Co (now CMS Cameron McKenna) sent out redundancy notices by bike courier. These things resonate in the memory. People may, in the end, forget all about the magic circle cuts, but – unfairly or not – they’ll probably remember the fact that DLA paid out the statutory minimum, that Norton Rose offered a four-day week and that Freshfields decided to freeze pay.
Actually, Freshfields’ decision has led to it being held in enormous affection – not necessarily by its own staff, but by its peers, who had the instant excuse to do the same. “It’s like they wrote a cheque to every firm in the City,” says one managing partner.
Other firms may not follow Norton Rose’s example yet, but at least it gives them breathing space to discuss it.