Boots on the Ground: Employee Welfare and the Five-Day Week – Source of the Month (April 2024)

Today is the ninetieth anniversary of an important step in employee welfare. On 30 April 1934, Boots Pure Drug Company Limited began an experiment with having a five-day working week. The interwar period was an important time in the evolution of industrial welfare. Emerging from the aftermath of the First World War, figures in the human relations movement began to debate with the idea of prioritising employee wellbeing alongside productivity.

Company magazines not only informed staff of changing working practices but also served as platforms for debating these progressive ideas. Internal communication at this time was primarily the responsibility of welfare workers, reflecting a recognition of the integral role communication played in fostering employee wellbeing and a spirit of camaraderie within organisations.

The introduction of the five-day week marked a significant milestone. By experimenting with innovative approaches to work schedules, Boots set an example that furthered debate across British industry. This move not only sparked discussions on labour efficiency and employee welfare but also prompted government engagement and broader debates on work–life balance.

Industrial Welfare in Interwar Britain

In the interwar period, the idea of a five-day working week began to be raised by some voice in British industry. Pioneering efforts were made by Rowntrees and the Cherry Blossom Boot Company, which implemented shorter working weeks for some of their employees shortly after the First World War. However, for most firms it remained an idea that was discussed rather than implemented.

The Gazette, the company magazine of John Lewis, discussed the pros and cons of the notion in 1920. At this time, the magazine did not cover the whole John Lewis firm, but only the Peter Jones department store which John Spedan Lewis had been placed in charge of by his father. There were often disagreements between the father and son over the latter’s emphasis on employee welfare in his running of the Peter Jones store.

While acknowledging the potential benefits of a shorter workweek, particularly in fostering greater flexibility and recognising the diverse needs of employees, John Spedan Lewis ultimately decided against implementing it universally. One key concern was the potential increase in working expenses, particularly for certain departments like the selling staff. He also emphasised the importance ensuring fairness among all employees regarding working hours.

Instead, John Spedan Lewis proposed a compromise in which employees who wanted a shorter working week could redistribute their hours across fewer days, provided it didn’t hinder business operations or unfairly burden other colleagues. Although the Peter Jones store did not adopt a shorter week, The Gazette’s debates demonstrated its concern for employee welfare and organisational adaptability, paving the way for future discussions on work-life balance and workplace flexibility.

Boots’ 1934 Experiment

The 30 April 1934 was a turning point for working hours. Boots, already a significant player in the pharmaceutical and retail industry, undertook a pioneering step by introducing a five-day working week, with Saturday no longer being a working day. It initially began with an experimental period lasting until 29 September, with odd days having been experimented with previously.

Much groundwork had been laid before this experiment could begin. For years, the company had been prioritising the rationalisation of its operations. A crucial step was the completion in 1933 of D10, the company’s packed wet goods factory in Beeston. This purpose-built facility was designed for optimal production efficiency and was seen as a major step forward in workspace design and functionality. Once the transition was completed, the company was able to operate with fewer personnel.

The new D10 factory at Beeston. Image courtesy of veggiesosage on Flickr.

Following the example of the human relations movement, the benefits of enhanced productivity were distributed among the various stakeholders including the employees. Reductions in product prices were passed on to consumers, while employees were granted additional holiday and eventually the transition to a five-day working week. Trade union pressure ensured that wages remained the same despite the reduction in working hours. The change wasn’t, however, able to overcome the earlier concerns of John Spedan Lewis about inequality, with retail staff not being included in the change.

The implementation of the five-day week was met with cautious optimism. As the experimental phase progressed, its impact on service quality and costs was evaluated. Ultimately, it was deemed a success and adopted long-term. It was seen not just as employee welfare but as a strategic move tied into efficiency of production.

Impact on British Industry

Boots may not have been the very first organisation to experiment with a shorter working week, but this was a turning point because of its wider impact on British industry. Boots’ move promoted an enquiry into the effects of the change by Richard Redmayne, a government advisor on mining and grandfather of the actor Eddie Redmayne.

Redmayne’s report detailed notable changes to productivity, absenteeism, and employee wellbeing. In both the warehouse and engineering departments it was found that levels of productivity were maintained without resorting to overtime as much as had been done in the past. The office department actually found an increase in efficiency with no rise in costs. Across the board, absenteeism decreased noticeably, attributed to the longer weekend rest period and greater opportunities for recreation. The medical officer commented on a positive impact on health and contentment among workers and increased freshness on Mondays. Most crucially, from a business perspective, Redmayne found that service quality had not been compromised and sales were unaffected.

Boots’ move had a significant impact across British industry and prompted broader discussions on labour practices. On 24 November 1934, The Economist ran an article on Redmayne’s positive view on this innovative approach to labour efficiency and employee welfare. The report highlighted how government engagement demonstrated a growing recognition of shorter working hours as a potential solution to unemployment, prompting discussions with industry stakeholders and trade unions.

This newspaper article was reprinted in full in John Lewis’ The Gazette with John Spedan Lewis’ comments. He acknowledged that some tasks, particularly manufacturing ones, could be done efficiently in a five-day week. However, he also predicted that as leisure time increased, some individuals may choose to work longer hours for better earnings. He spoke of his own organisation needing to consider shorter daily shifts or fewer working days to accommodate varying lifestyles and ages. He also floated other innovative ideas, such as providing employee housing to reduce commuting expenses.

The Second World War caused a degree of disruption initially, with the war effort necessitating longer working hours. After the war, however, a five-day week became the standard across industries. Within Boots’ organisational narrative, this move holds particular importance. It may not have been the very first to implement such a policy, but the prominence of Boots’ move became emblematic of the company’s commitment to employee wellbeing and efficiency. A 1993 scrapbook held at the Boots archive heralds the company as ‘the first in the UK’ to adopt this measure. Although not strictly speaking the case, it reflects the great significance of this monumental decision to Boots’ identity and ethos.

Sources

Lock, John, D10: A Shining Edifice (1993). Walgreens Boots Alliance Archive, PP/JL/1/8.

Niven, M.M., Personnel Management, 1913-63 (London: Institute of Personnel Management, 1967), p. 77 & 116.

Redmayne, Richard, A Review of the Experimental Working of the Five Days Week (1934). Warwick Modern Record Centre, MSS.148/UCW/6/13/14/9.

The Gazette, 1 May 1920, pp. 216-17. John Lewis Heritage Centre, online resource.

The Gazette, 1 December 1934, pp. 1015-18. John Lewis Heritage Centre, online resource.

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