The Four Day Week

Business 21st May 2019

Just a pipedream – or a workplace win-win?

The other day BBC Radio 4 broadcast a programme on the growing calls for a switch to a four-day week. Wouldn’t that be great? It’s a tempting thought. More time to spend with the family, on the allotment, walking the dog, doing the housework, catching up on Game of Thrones. But of course, the idea is little more than a pipedream. Who can afford to drop one-fifth of their wage? And, from the employer’s point of view, they need full-time staff to be exactly that – full-time! The whole concept is an idealised utopian non-starter. Or is it?

It’s a common mistake to think of New Zealand as an archaic throwback to antiquated values and practices. Perpetual Guardian is a financial services company, which busts that myth. Late last year, their 240 employees, located across both islands, trialled a switch to a four day week, with no loss of pay. The results were frankly staggering, astonishing both the sourest of cynics and the most enthusiastic of ‘believers’.

These are the consequences to date –

1. Improved staff well-being with significantly lower job stress and burnout

2. Greater workplace creativity

3. Teams are stronger and functioning better together

4. Increased employee engagement – improved ‘vibe’ towards the employer. All this resulting in higher retention – therefore lower recruitment costs

5. Productivity up by an average of 20%

Is the perfect work/life balance within reach of us all?

The four day week initiative was no hare-brained scheme dreamed up by a bunch of whimsical directors. The trial was planned and monitored with the assistance of academics from the University of Auckland and Auckland University of Technology.  A few months into the trial, workers were surveyed about it. The survey explored issues such as leadership, stimulation, empowerment and commitment. Each showed a significant approval-rating increase.

The biggest improvements were in commitment and empowerment. Stress levels were down from 45% to 38%. Perhaps less surprisingly, work-life balance scores increased dramatically from 54% to 78%.

Andrew Barnes is founder and Chief Executive of Perpetual Guardian. He comments, “This is an idea whose time has come. We need to get more companies to give it a go. They will be surprised at the improvement in their company, their staff and in their wider community.”

Branch Manager Tammy Barker puts the employees’ point of view. “We’ve been treated like adults and I think as a result everyone is behaving like adults.” Her personal experience was that working fewer hours had forced her to be more diligent and to apply greater focus. She was less likely to multi-task and jump from one job to the next.

Although the exercise has been generally successful, its success has not been universal. Inevitably, the initial excitement is prone to wearing off, resulting in a slight fall back towards original levels. Employers will have to check carefully that complacency doesn’t set in.

Tammy Barker explains –

“To guard against this happening we’ve spent a lot of time making sure every person in every team has their own plan as to how they’re going to maintain and even improve their productivity.

“I did find that my productivity increased purely by being more aware of my work processes and thinking about how I was doing things and why I was doing them. At the same time, I didn’t feel any more stressed at work probably because I was really focusing on the tasks at hand and because I had the extra day off to compensate for the increased work rate.”

Perpetual Guardian’s experiment has not gone unnoticed. Well over 300 requests for information from nearly 30 countries have flooded in from across the globe. Many from the UK. Perhaps, most notable is The Wellcome Trust science funding body, which is thinking of switching its 800 head office staff to a four-day week.

It’s clear that the proposal can’t be effective in every sector – especially those which, by their very nature, require staff to be ‘at work’ – retail, for example, and front-line policing and nursing. But there are many areas where you might be surprised at the benefits. What about your own workplace? Could there be benefits in introducing a four-day week? Aside from the advantages listed above, there’s the question of recruitment. If you were to offer the carrot of a four day week, wouldn’t your company be more likely to attract premium candidates?

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As experts in Employee Engagement & Retention, we understand the complexities of workplace dynamics. We appreciate the value of highly motivated staff – how they critical to building a strong company ethos and how this will result in lower recruitments costs, higher turnover and bigger profits.

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