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The four-day week actually works

This New Zealand CEO may have found the antidote to the elusive work/life balance.

The four-day work week is the unicorn of the workforce; something that we leave to those progressive Scandinavians while we slug away at our 40+ hour week, holding out for the weekend. One New Zealand-based company is attempting to overhaul traditional office hours and we can only hope that Australia will soon follow in their footsteps.

In February, Andrew Barnes, founder and CEO of statutory trust business Perpetual Guardian, announced to his 240 staff that they would trial a four-day working week, without changes to their salaries, for a period of six weeks. Now that the results are in, it looks like it could be here to stay.

Why ditch the five-day week?

It’s thought that the five-day week was first introduced in 1908 at an American cotton mill, designed to cater for the mill’s Jewish workers who wanted to take time off during Sabbath (Friday sundown to Saturday sundown).

A few other large U.S companies soon followed but it wasn’t until 1940, when a provision in the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938) mandated a 40-hour work week, that it become more widespread. Eight years later, the five-day working week arrived in Australia.

It makes sense, 70 years on, that Barnes should attempt to revolutionise the average work week in order to cater to a shifting modern workforce. Plenty of companies have trialled, or at least floated the idea, of cutting work hours from eight to six, but Perpetual Guardian seems to be one of the first to consider slashing a whole day entirely.

Inspired by several global productivity reports, Barnes says this new-age way of working is just “the right thing to do”. While the policy excited his staff, they were expected to maintain, if not exceed, current productivity levels by working smarter.

He believes this is the natural solution to the lack of work/life balance affecting employees world wide.

“We want people to be the best they can be while they’re in the office, but also at home,” he says.

The positive results

“Our analysis of the results shows the objectives of the trial were successfully met. The key areas we sought to measure, including work-life balance, engagement, organisational commitment and work stimulation, all showed positive increases – that is a powerful combination that leads to job satisfaction,” says Barnes.

For sake of transparency, external researchers were brought in to measure the results. Before the trial, 45 per cent of staff reported feeling stressed and following the trial this lowered to 38 per cent. There was a significant increase to employees’ work/life balance, which previously sat at 54 per cent (according to surveys conducted in 2017) and now shows that 78 per cent of employees experience a positive balance.

Team engagement went through the roof post study, with leadership, commitment, stimulation and empowerment sitting in the mid-to-high 80th percentile, having previously sat in the mid-to-high 60s region.

Another benefit, Barnes notes, is that it encouraged the company’s leaders to look at innovative ways to manage their teams; empowering staff-led discussions about engagement and productivity.

In correlation, Dr Helen Delaney, senior lecturer at the University of Auckland Business School, found many employees expressed a greater sense of empowerment in their work because of the planning discussions that preceded the trial. She says, “Employees designed a number of innovations and initiatives to work in a more productive and efficient manner, from automating manual processes to reducing or eliminating non-work-related internet usage.”

When looking at job satisfaction, engagement and retention, professor of Human Resource Management at Auckland University of Technology Jarrod Haar says that the scores are “easily the highest [he] has seen in New Zealand data”.

Some teams were more successful than others, says Perpetual Guardian’s head of people, Christine Brotherton.

“Where leaders coached, guided and supported their teams to come up with their own productivity measures and rosters for ensuring excellent client service, we think that teams felt empowered and motivated to succeed. Where leadership was not demonstrated so strongly, we have been able to identify deficiencies in leadership that perhaps we may not have had the opportunity to see if not for the trial.”

Should we adopt this policy in Australia?

Longer working hours equal lower productivity and engagement, says Rhonda Brighton-Hall, CEO and founder of mwah (Make Work Absolutely Human).

She says the 4-day week is something she could see working in Australia. “As we automate work, and rethink physical and mental wellbeing, it would be great to consider this as an option. We’re already moving towards this type of working week, as shown in recent research”.

“There’s a significant decrease in people working a five-day week. Caring responsibilities may have been the top reason for this change but for people under 28-years-old, the most popular reason for moving to a four day week was “personal preference”. So, considering this for Australia wouldn’t be too much of a stretch from where we are already heading,” says Brighton-Hall.

She also notes that a 4-day week may not be sustainable for some smaller businesses or roles that require a high level of client facing work.

The results of the trial are currently sitting with the Perpetual Guardian board for review. Barnes expects to announce a decision around potential permanency of the four-day week within the next month. He also encouraged leaders to trial this structure themselves, “your worst case scenario is that you will get a more engaged, committed and energized work force,” he says.

What would a four day working week look like in your organisation? Leave your comments below.

Hear Rhonda Brighton-Hall FCPHR speak about game changers and the future of work at the Public Sector HR Conference in Melbourne on 28 August – a part of the AHRI National Convention and Exhibition from 28 to 31 August 2018. Registration closes Tuesday 21 August.

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It’s not clear if the stated stipulation with this trial was achieved: “…staff… were expected to maintain, if not exceed, current productivity levels by working smarter.” Certainly this made people feel positive across many factors; however, I am interested to know if client service and desired business outcomes were also achieved/maintained. Is this information available?


Many thanks Kate.
(Replying directly to your comment does not seem to be working.)

Tasman McManis
Tasman McManis

It will be interesting to see if the improvements can be sustained over the longer term. There is likely to be a need to re-energize the process after a year or two as is the case with various organisational processes. Many employees would be delighted to have a four day week just so long as they can retain their current rate of pay. This is obviously not so attractive for the business.

Tim Davey
Tim Davey

I have predominantly worked part-time (a 4 day week) by choice for the last 10 years and within 3 organisations. Working flexibly in an otherwise full-time professional role, I have found that this arrangement has worked well for my employer in terms of my productivity and focus. Just as importantly, it has also worked well for me (and my family). On balance, given my reduced remuneration, I tend to think that my employers have benefited most. Would I give it up however? No way!

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