A company in New Zealand trialled a four-day working week, without changing wages
It’s 3.37pm. You’re making your fifth coffee of the day. Time seems to be standing still. You don’t even like coffee.
If this sounds familiar, it may come as no surprise that the average employee spends just two hours and 53 minutes working during an eight-hour day, according to a 2016 study of 2,000 UK office workers.
You might also be interested in the results of a trial by Perpetual Guardian, a company in New Zealand that tested a four-day work week on its 240 employees in March and April this year.
Some 78 per cent of staff said they were able to successfully manage their work-life balance over the course of the experiment, an increase of 24 percentage points compared to beforehand. It is now set to be permanently rolled out there.
Could the incentive of an extra day off each week to catch up on life admin, spend time with friends and family, or simply do nothing, make us more productive on the days we are at work?
The concept isn’t new but is receiving fresh attention as awareness grows of the health impacts of long hours and precarious working conditions. Prof John Ashton, president of the UK Faculty of Public Health, made the case in 2014 for a shorter work week to combat physical and psychological challenges, saying: “The problem we have is a proportion of the population who are working too hard and a proportion that haven’t got jobs.”
At Perpetual Guardian, staff were contracted to work a five-day week but were ‘gifted’ a day off each week, on the condition they hit productivity targets. Their pay remained the same. Academic researchers Dr Helen Delaney and Dr Jarrod Haar monitored staff before, during and after the trial.
Haar, who is professor of human resource management at Auckland University of Technology, found that job and life satisfaction increased on all levels across the home and work front, with employees performing better in their jobs and enjoying them more compared to before the experiment.
Staff stress levels dropped by seven percentage points while stimulation, commitment and a sense of empowerment at work all improved significantly, with overall life satisfaction increasing by five percentage points.
Culturally, we’ve been conditioned to think that working hard equates to working longer
The way the eight-week trial was put together is also interesting: Perpetual Guardian’s owner Andrew Barnes explains that it was left up to employees. “We said ‘you have to tell us how you’ll achieve the same work in four days and how we should measure you’. That drove up engagement with the trial: it was incredibly important that staff felt included in the process.”
As the weeks went on, employees adapted to be more efficient on the days they were in the office. Small but effective changes included putting ‘do not disturb’ signs in desk pencil pots to aid concentration; automating some manual processes; and reducing or eliminating internet usage that wasn’t related to work.
There were some unanticipated benefits too, stemming from allowing staff to choose their day off, or reduce hours, meaning they could arrive later and leave earlier. “We had 20 per cent fewer people in the office on average each day, so noise levels and interruptions dropped,” says Barnes. “We also used less power, and we used our cars less because we weren’t sitting in rush hour.”
If we know that less stressed and healthier employees equal not only a happier workforce but increased productivity, why aren’t more employers following in Perpetual Guardian’s footsteps?
Clearly, it wouldn’t work for every business. But the biggest hurdle, culturally, suggests Barnes, “is that we’ve been conditioned to think that working hard equates to working longer hours when the reality is that we need to work smarter”.
The eight-hour working day was created, he notes, in part to protect workers’ rights. But today when companies within the so-called gig economy seek to circumvent legislation around working hours, this no longer stands to reason.
Barnes hopes that other firms will follow suit based on Perpetual Guardian’s findings: “I hope we’ve provided evidence of an alternative that creates a more engaged, motivated, empowered and loyal workforce.”
Featured image: a man enjoys a day off at Roys Peak, a mountain in New Zealand