The four-day work week, promising boosted work-life balance, job satisfaction and productivity, has never felt more in reach. But could this model really make its way into the mainstream?
In recent years, the concept of a compressed work week has gained significant traction in Australia, captivating the attention of leaders and employees across the country.
After a recent trial of a four-day work week by 10 Australian and 16 international organisations across a range of sectors, only one participating company chose not to continue with the compressed week. Rates of absenteeism fell by an average of 44 per cent, and over half of employees reported an increase in the quality of their work.
During the trial, organisations followed the 100/80/100 model – that is, employees offer 100 per cent of their productivity in 80 per cent of the time, and still receive 100 per cent of their pay. This strategy demonstrated a positive impact on retention, mental health and environmental outcomes. Almost two thirds (64 per cent) of employees experienced reductions in burnout, while 38 per cent felt less stressed.
“You can’t afford not to do this,” said the CEO of one of the pilot companies. “You can improve productivity, improve the bottom line, improve employee wellbeing and improve staff attraction and retention.”
However, while many are touting the benefits of a shorter week, critics argue that condensing work into fewer days could lead to disruptions in production, teamwork and collaboration due to mismatched schedules.
The complex nature of work in sectors such as healthcare and manufacturing, where continuous worker coverage is required, have also prompted many to question whether a compressed work week is truly on the cards for the bulk of Australian employees.
So, how should employers assess whether a compressed week is feasible for them? We asked CEO of Grant Thornton and upcoming AHRI National Convention speaker, Greg Keith, to share his perspectives.
Making the most of a compressed work week
Late last year, leaders at Grant Thornton, one of Australia’s largest accounting firms, announced that the firm would trial a reduced working week, with staff working a nine-day working fortnight while retaining their full salaries. The six-month trial commenced in March this year.
“Because the business was not operating at full efficiency, we believed this initiative would motivate our people to work with us to find improvements in efficiency, and to such an extent the program would be at least cost-neutral within a short period of time,” says Keith.
“Experimenting with reduced working weeks requires a culture built on respect, trust, innovation, and a commitment from everyone to the purpose of the organisation.” – Greg Keith, CEO of Grant Thornton
After the firm’s experience navigating remote and hybrid working models during the height of COVID-19, its leaders became more amenable to the idea that workers can be equally – if not more – productive in a non-traditional work environment.
“Closed borders produced a strange phenomenon where almost every industry became short on talent at the same time, which left many people overworked, exhausted and burnt out towards the end of 2022,” says Keith.
“With the many changes to work practices, demand, trust and dynamics, it is not surprising we began to look at ways to collaborate with our people to find practical solutions for how we can work more efficiently.
“We aim to share those gains with our people so they can refresh themselves, improve their physical and mental health and wellbeing, and, in turn, create a happier and more successful work environment that attracts and retains awesome people.”
If the trial is successful in the next six to 12 months, based on employee feedback and the maintenance of key performance indicators, Grant Thornton will consider permanently adopting the model. As well as resulting in a happier, healthier workforce, the firm’s leaders hope this will be a significant differentiator in the talent market.
Advice for those considering a shorter work week
For businesses considering a similar experiment, Keith suggests being upfront with all stakeholders about the potential risks and unknowns, especially given that the compressed work week has so far only been trialled by a select few employers.
“Being an early adopter is not for the faint-hearted,” he says. “Before any leadership team attempts a reduced working week program, they need permission to fail, otherwise this is a big leap of faith, highly risky and exposes the proposers to consequences. Your boss and your Board must have your back.
“Fortunately, my leadership team believed we had the right culture at Grant Thornton and [we had] the support of our Partners and Board to implement a trial nine-day fortnight.”
Whether or not a compressed week could suit your organisation will also depend on the nature of the sector and employee pool. However, having a workforce of mostly casual employees does not mean that a shorter week cannot be feasible, says Keith.
“This requires a discussion with the individual to tailor a program that works for both the team member and the employer. For instance, the [casual] team member might agree to bank some earned recharge time over a few weeks or a month, and then take the recharge time in a meaningful block.”
You could also talk to employees about other ways you could make their work more flexible, such as allowing them to set their hours.
Could compressed weeks really enter the mainstream?
Given the positive outcomes of recent compressed work week trials, many employees may well be questioning whether this will become a standard offering in the foreseeable future.
According to Keith, how long it takes for the compressed week to build momentum in the mainstream will depend on employers’ culture, their confidence in the economy and whether this offering is a necessity to remain competitive in attracting and retaining talent. However, he says, enshrining this model as a right in the Fair Work Act could pose difficulties.
“I doubt legislating a four-day work week would be effective because then the reduced hours become an entitlement,” he says. “This would then remove the necessity for the employer and team member to collaborate on delivering greater efficiencies so they can be shared.
“It doesn’t seem logical to me, as you cannot legislate trust and culture, which are two critical factors to the success of a reduced work week.”
However, the overwhelmingly positive feedback from employees who have participated in a compressed week trial may well prompt a significant portion of employers to consider adopting the model – and, the more commonplace it becomes, the more likely it is that organisations that ignore this trend will miss out on the best talent.
“No amount of money would induce me to go back to five days,” said one participant in the global four-day week study.
“Working a four-day week means I’m much more focused on my family, my health and my life in general. I take that gratitude and calm into my office and it helps me make better decisions,” said another.
Ultimately, the success of these trials will depend on the level of consultation with the employees they involve, says Keith.
“The leadership team must be supported by their people,” he says. “Experimenting with reduced working weeks requires a culture built on respect, trust, innovation and a commitment from everyone to the purpose of the organisation.
“Most importantly, your people should know they have a strong voice to advocate and the power to create and embed change.”
Greg Keith will speak alongside other HR leaders, researchers and experts at AHRI’s 2023 annual National Convention & Exhibition. Don’t miss your chance to build connections, hear from globally recognised thought leaders and lead impactful change. Register now.