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The business case for a 5 hour workday

A Tasmanian SME has boosted engagement and attracted top talent by introducing a five-hour workday. But it wasn’t always smooth sailing.

Jonathan Elliot has never been a big believer in working long hours. Even before the managing director of the financial services firm Collins SBA introduced a five-hour workday six months ago, he encouraged his team of 30 to maintain a healthy work-life balance.“We don’t have a work-from-home policy,” he says. “We expect a lot from our team when they’re here, but when they’re not, we expect them not to be connected.”

Elliot had been mulling over different ways to reward productivity and help attract high-calibre staff in the midst of an industry-wide talent squeeze, and found that money simply wasn’t cutting it as a differentiator.

The idea of shaving off a third of the usual workday came to Elliot last year when he was working part-time while his wife was undergoing cancer treatment. His ability to stay on top of things by streamlining processes and eliminating non-essential tasks surprised him. When he returned to full-time work after his wife’s recovery, he saw an opportunity to maintain highly effective work habits and spread them throughout the firm.

Elliot and his operations director, Claudia Parsons, put their heads together and wrote a white paper on the concept for shareholders. Staff were told about the three-month trial just before the office closed for the summer break, giving them time to digest the news.

It was crucial to provide clear expectations to staff from the outset, which entailed involving staff in setting KPIs for themselves and then everyone across the business sharing them on Yammer so people could see what was expected of everyone else.

“We had to become more disciplined in everything we do. So KPIs are now tracked and measured using Microsoft dynamics. The way we framed it was that we needed staff to do a full day’s work in five hours. It’s not a five-hour day. There’s a subtle but critical difference.”

While Elliot anticipated shorter workdays would have a social cost, staff weren’t expressly told to avoid socialising. Rather, they were encouraged to be critical about the way they worked, and many staff have come up with more efficient ways of doing tasks and achieving higher levels of engagement. Team huddles and regular social events have been used to counter the fact that there’s less opportunity for water cooler chats.

Teething problems

During the first month of the trial, morale was surprisingly low – staff said they felt pressured to complete their work in a shorter timeframe. “I was surprised by how difficult it was to get used to the new day,” says client service coordinator Fiona Duncan. “Often I was one of only four or so people in the office after 3pm. Feelings of pressure and resentment began to build up.” Duncan didn’t embrace the shorter workday until she saw it as something to strive for, rather than a daily deadline.

Two employees were unable to adapt to a more intense style of working and resigned as a result. Nonetheless, Elliot says the five-hour day has delivered the benefits he hoped it would regarding talent and retention. Six new recruits of a “very high calibre” have been hired, including someone who joined the team despite having been offered a job at one the ‘Big Four’ firms, and another who relocated his family from interstate.

Recent recruitment drives seem to confirm this with the high-quality applicants running into the hundreds for one job, he says.

Client concerns

Maintaining client satisfaction was critical to determining whether a shorter workday would be viable in the long term. “We thought the best success would be if our clients didn’t even notice,” says Elliot. A fourth receptionist was hired, and a roster of shifts ensured that client calls were always answered. Urgent matters were referred to the relationship manager and afternoon meetings scheduled if a morning appointment wasn’t convenient. Elliot says it was his team’s flexible attitude that made the scheme a success.

Intangible benefits

Did working fewer hours create happier staff? In a word, yes. “People come across as more motivated and proactively contribute more,” says Elliot. A recent staff survey found high levels of job satisfaction and wellbeing, and sick leave has reduced considerably. While the five-hour workday is continuing indefinitely, Elliot says that he’s loathe to use the word ‘permanent’ to describe it and it hasn’t been codified as a formal policy. His hope is that staff will continue to work hard to retain it.

Picture is of Claudia Parsons, Operations Director for Collins SBA

This article originally appeared in the October 2017 edition of HRM magazine.

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