There was a time when the idea of a five-day work week seemed fanciful. But now companies are starting to look at what a four-day week might mean for productivity and improving the work/life balance. A company in New Zealand has been trialling this idea and, after a testing it out, has decided to roll it out across their entire workforce.
Work/life balance is becoming an important criteria when employees choose where they work. We live at a time of relatively low unemployment in a number of industry sectors and a workforce that’s increasingly seeing work as a means to an end and not as life-defining as previous generations. Many of the people I know, who started their work lives in full-time roles have found ways to either negotiate with employers to have more flexible work hours or have left the traditional work force and move to independent consulting or freelance arrangements so they can have more control over when they work.
One of my friends, who runs a successful PR agency has a team of staff who work flexible hours from multiple locations. They have a shared office in a co-working space but mostly work from home. The arrangement works well for all the staff because there is an understanding that everyone is a professional with a focus on delivering the best possible outcomes for clients and the firm.
The key in successfully moving to such an arrangement is that the focus shifts from how long it takes to do a job to delivering outcomes.
Perpetual Guardian found that when they moved personnel to a four-day work week, “productivity had increased by 20 per cent during the trial, and staff were more engaged and enthusiastic”.
While the employee happiness is hardly surprising, the measured increase in productivity might come as a surprise to skeptics. In a sense, the maths seems counter-intuitive; reducing working hours by 20% increased productivity by 20%.
Founder and managing director Andrew Barnes said “We have proven the concept and developed a model workable for our business, and we have established a KPI for the leaders in our business to ensure productivity and customer service are maintained”.
The shortened work hours helped increase focus and concentration. For example, there were fewer meetings and time spent on social media was reduced. Some workers experimented with signals such as flags on their desk so other knew not to distract them – an important consideration seeing there’s research suggesting recovery from interruptions can be a massive productivity sucker. And by reducing the number of people in the office at any one time, there was less noise which aided concentration.
The other benefit, not discussed by Perpetual Guardian or the researchers that looked into what they’d done, is around employee retention. The cost of employing personnel is significant. Many employment agencies charge up to 15% of the employee’s salary to place a new staff member and then there’s the cost of training that person and the lost productivity as they get up to speed. If those costs can be avoided there are measurable financial benefits that go beyond increased work output for the existing work force.
Certainly, not every role can be delivered by a full-time workforce that’s only at work four-fifths of the time. Customer-facing roles that require face-to-face engagement require physical presence. And there are jobs that take specific amounts of time and effort to execute. For example, in construction and mining. But roles where outcomes are measured in different terms, such as the production of software code, technical writing or project management, don’t necessarily require presence in the office at particular times or for specific periods.
One of the reasons for the success of the Perpetual Guardian trial was that it was carried out with close consultation between management and employees. And the company is also working towards ensuring equitable arrangements for existing part-time staff.
For any sort of flexible, or non-traditional work arrangement to be adopted there needs to be cooperation between employers and employees. And employers considering such an approach need to shift how they consider employee performance to a more outcome-focussed mentality. That requires more than just altered contractual arrangements. It requires performance to be defined by what gets done, rather than how longe was spent in the office. While modern employee measurement systems do look at outcomes, there’s also a mindset about being seen at work that needs to change.