How can organisations remove the stigma around non-traditional work hours? And what can we learn from those who are already taking progressive steps to align with how many hours we should work each week?
We’re working ourselves into the ground. As HRM reported last year, new research found the average Australian employee worked 6.21 hours of unpaid overtime each week last year, which equates to nearly seven weeks of free work over the year.
Most people are well aware of our overworking tendencies – they’re most likely participating in it, after all – but do you know how many hours we can work before our productivity and wellbeing is impacted?
In a study by time management expert Laura Vanderkam, as relayed by Atlassian, 900 people were surveyed about their work hours – the average work day of this group was 8.3 hours long.
Vanderkam identified only a one hour difference between those who felt they had enough time to do their work (they worked 7.6 hours each day) and those who constantly felt time pressured (they worked 8.6 hours each day). That means the optional work week sits at 38 hours, according to Vanderkam. In the same article, Atlassian pointed to research from Stanford which suggests that productivity takes a sharp dive at the 50-hour mark.
With this information in hand, employers can think about innovative ways to re-imagine how we work. That might be embracing non-traditional work hours or thinking about leave differently, for example. Each industry will have its own solution, but what’s most important is that HR professionals and leaders start having these conversations now because it’s at a point where we have no time to waste.
Vanderkam’s research suggests 38 hours is the sweet spot, but what if we took things a step further? Could an even shorter week, say a 30-hour week, deliver even better results?
In praise of shorter work weeks
One day we might look back on the nine-to-five work week with the same bewilderment as we do the 16-hour day/six-day week model that many in the working class endured during the Industrial Revolution. People as young as ten worked from sunrise to sunset for the majority of their working lives, stopping only to rest and refuel.
While we’ve come leaps and bounds since then, we’ve still got a way to go in reshaping our career-centric attitudes while also ensuring economic and productivity gains. The solution, many suggest, is shorter work weeks because productivity and punching the clock aren’t inextricably linked.
The concept of a shorter work week isn’t just the domain of progressive consultancies. It has expanded to other industries and there are some powerful people floating the idea as an economic pathway to recovery post COVID-19.
In May last year, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern proposed a shorter work week as a way to boost local tourism and divvy up jobs to get more people back into the workforce. While many praised Ardern for starting a public conversation about work-life balance in a post-pandemic world, others thought it was wishful thinking.
As relayed by the ABC, Australian National University professor Rohan Pitchford tweeted in response that,“We need to watch out for well-meaning but misguided utopianism”.
In this article, the journalist, Gareth Hutchens, points out that the word ‘utopian’ is often used to dismiss those pitching new approaches to work.
“It was once ‘utopian’ to imagine a world in which workers [had] two days off every week. But now look – we have a thing called the ‘weekend’ and everyone accepts it,” says Hutchens.
It’s laughable that we could have once operated without our precious weekend, but it was just over 70 years ago that the concept was first introduced to Australia. It’s very possible we could look back on the five-day week model and scoff at our naivety in thinking this was the best way to get the most out of our workforce. Some organisations are already ahead of the curve.
Introducing a new way
New Zealand-based statutory trust business Perpetual Guardian Group has been offering four-day work weeks since 2018 – an initiative brought in by the founder of the business, Andrew Barnes.
“The concept was based on some research from Canada which showed that people in law firms … are only productive for two or three hours of the day,” says CEO Patrick Gamble.
This appealed to Barnes’s sense of leadership. It was his job to get the most out of his people and just because things were bubbling along nicely, that didn’t mean there wasn’t a better approach.
He told employees if they could produce their allocated “widgets of productivity” that he didn’t mind if they did it in four or five days. Those who opted for the former weren’t expected to cram five days’ worth of work into four, and their pay wouldn’t be docked. Barnes’s model was 80 per cent time for 100 per cent pay and 100 per cent productivity.
“It was once ‘utopian’ to imagine a world in which workers [had] two days off every week. But now look – we have a thing called the ‘weekend’ and everyone accepts it.” – Gareth Hutchens, ABC
Gamble was Perpetual’s general counsel when the policy was first introduced; his job was to poke holes in the plan. But after witnessing firsthand how much productivity and engagement levels increased, he has since changed his tune.
“I used to work at a law firm in Dublin where we were doing 80-hour weeks. If you can turn up and get it done in 35 hours, why is it that I’m considered more productive even though I’m actually slower? I’m the superstar because I’ve billed my 80 hours,” he says.
“I mean, at every level that’s wrong. It’s wrong from a client perspective, it’s wrong from a business perspective, and it’s wrong from a personal perspective.”
Trial and error
Since July last year, Dr Amantha Imber, organisational psychologist and founder of Inventium, a Melbourne-based behavioural science consultancy, and her team have also been trialling a four-day week.
As a result, she says employee engagement scores and collaboration levels “have never been higher” and the benefits to the bottom line are clear.
“We’re way ahead of our targets for the first half of the financial year and all of this has been amid a pandemic,” she says.
“When you implement HR policies that go above and beyond, it can be really easy for people to start taking it for granted.” – Amantha Imber, Inventium.
Gamble too sings the praises of the four-day week. Outside of an impressive increase in productivity, he says it has been fantastic for attraction and retention.
“We’re getting some really high-calibre candidates who might not have otherwise come to us; they might have gone to a bank or a law firm where they could have worked their guts out.”
Importantly, Barnes and Gamble didn’t go in guns blazing without preparing to secure buy-in from the board. They needed to prove it wasn’t fluff or a ploy to gain media attention (that was just the cherry on top). They had to present a research-backed business case and set company-wide benchmarks.
The tricky bits
The thing holding some employers back from adopting a new work hour model is the fear that costs will outweigh benefits.
Imber says this is a real concern and while her current four-day week is reaping impressive results, she has tried other innovative practices in the past that had a short shelf life.
“When you implement HR policies that go above and beyond, it can be really easy for people to start taking it for granted.”
In Imber’s case, this was a forward-thinking work/life balance strategy allowing employees to take unlimited annual leave.
“We had this policy in place for three and a half years and it worked really well until the last six months … [when] it wasn’t used with the same intent it was created for.”
But that’s the reality of challenging the norms; sometimes it will work and other times it won’t. Or, as was the case with Imber, sometimes it will work for a certain period of time and then it becomes time to tweak, iterate and push into new territory.
While Gamble has certainly seen the benefits of a four-day work week, he’s not blind to its challenges. A structure like this can eat into middle management’s time.
“To be honest, you do have to stay on top of some people. We have some staff who take it really seriously – they have shorter meetings; they don’t muck around – but we have the odd few who struggle to maintain the discipline.”
Employees need to understand that the four-day week is a privilege, not a right. If productivity measures are not maintained, those privileges may be revoked until they’re once again hitting their benchmarks – that’s how Gamble maintains buy-in from the top brass.
But the most important thing, says Gamble, is knowing how to measure productivity.
“In order to ensure you’re not sending the business off a cliff, you need to be able to measure the productivity you expect from people. In a business that’s as varied as ours, that’s not necessarily easily. So we break it up into teams.”
For example, Perpetual’s legal team was consulted about how their productivity should be measured. They came back with a myriad of ideas – from documents processed to estates they had gone through. They also needed a clear signal if things were going off track.
“That could be things like turnaround time for clients or number of complaints. Once you set that baseline, when you can say, ‘I’m paying you to produce X-hundred documents’ then you have more confidence that everyone can still be productive in less hours because you have something to measure against,” he says.
Step into the unknown
When introducing a policy like this, both Gamble and Imber say it’s best practice to be open to all forms of flexibility. If you’re going to praise the benefits of shorter weeks but quash someone’s request to work shorter days, then you’re not really offering value to employees but jumping on a workplace trend – you need to build a culture of flexibility and remove the stigma around non-traditional hours.
AHRI has got flexible work policies, templates and resources – including a sample Flex-First policy – for you over at AHRI:ASSIST. Exclusive to AHRI members.
You need to warm up your culture to ensure progressive policies take flight. For example, employees need to be comfortable to step away from their desk once they’ve completed their tasks for the day, even if others are still working – and employers need to send the clear message that this is okay and expected.
Imber says centring autonomy as one of your company values is a great place to start. This, she says, is a motivating force that helps people to embrace change.
“If you employ smart people who are hungry to improve and do things better, then they don’t need to be micromanaged. They just need to be given the freedom to do what they do best.”
Equally crucial elements that need to be embedded into your culture, she says, are trust and purpose. Trust was challenged in 2020 with the rise of remote work, but now that most employees have proven they can keep the wheels turning from home, it’s a prime opportunity to ride the momentum of that trust and influence more proactive workplace solutions that centre employee wellbeing.
Gamble, Imber and HRM aren’t suggesting that the four-day week is something all organisations should adopt.
“It’s not a universal panacea for all that ails,” says Gamble. “Some people will try it and decide the rhythm of their life works better with a nine-to-five model.”
And certain industries have little choice but to work within these traditional hour frameworks – teachers or healthcare professionals, for example.
But for those privileged enough to try something new, it’s time to stop thinking of these unique approaches to work as something far on the horizon. HR and leaders need to think about how to create sustainable working practices that give equal weight to both employees’ mental health and their productivity levels.
So if you’re thinking about adopting an innovative work hour model sometime in the future, ask yourself, “What’s stopping us from doing it right now?”
A longer version of this article first appeared in the February 2021 edition of HRM magazine.