RESEARCH TELLS US THE FOUR-DAY WORK WEEK IS LONG OVERDUE
There’s been a steady increase in companies around the world experimenting with reduced work weeks. A recent trial out of New Zealand gives both workers and bosses reason to be less sceptical about the prospect of working less.
As I write this, my eyes are darting back and forth between my computer and the notifications I’m receiving on my phone. I’m becoming increasingly invested in a conversation that’s happening at the desk across from mine. And I have multiple tabs open on topics ranging from politics and news to how to perform a proper plank.
Not all that goes on at work is actual work. As Parkinson’s Law (cheekily) tells us, work will stretch to fill the amount of time allocated for it. Give someone eight hours to complete a two hour task and you’ll be impressed by all the time-wasting measures they manage to invent.
Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand company which specialises in wills, trusts and EPAs, was aware of this and all the other problems which plague work, which is why they opted for a novel approach: all 240 of its employees would work four days a week, while being paid for five.
This comes in response to a growing body of research which suggests that modern office settings can be detrimental to focus and productivity. In fact, one UK poll found that the average office worker is on task for only two hours and 23 minutes a day, with the rest of the day spent checking social media, reading the news, chatting with colleagues, and preparing food and drinks.
The rationale behind offering employees an extra day off, then, was to limit the amount of procrastination that goes on in the office. If the work week is condensed, employees will be more motivated to hunker down and use that time as wisely as possible.
But employee satisfaction was also on the agenda. There’s been a real push for better work-life balance in recent years, especially among millennials. Work isn’t the priority in people’s lives it used to be, and young people want assurance that it won’t overshadow time devoted to relaxation, travel and leisure. Of course, the benefits go both ways. When workers are happy and well-rested, their commitment to productivity rises.
A considerable amount of talk and planning took place to clarify expectations and ensure usual levels of productivity were maintained. For example, employees were asked to list the range of activities they performed in a given week and devise ways they could complete those activities in four days instead of five. To ensure that whole teams wouldn’t be absent, allocated days off would differ for each employee.
Challenging workers to be more deliberate in how they managed their time led to the introduction of several time-saving initiatives. Manual processes were automated, team meetings were only held when necessary, and instant chat functions were introduced to facilitate quicker and easier communication.
The results point to the four-day work week being a success. Both employees and managers reported lower levels of stress and increased team engagement. They also felt much more valued by their company, which goes a long way towards increasing job satisfaction and incentivising hard work.
There was also no indication that performance suffered as a result of the trial, which should be an eye-opener for any sceptics of the reduced work week. In fact, supervisors observed a marked increase in positive behaviours. Teams were more punctual, creative, cohesive, and offered better customer service. The extra time off also translated to a boost in energy once employees returned to the office.
Perhaps the most important outcome was a significant improvement in work-life balance. Many participants expressed satisfaction at having more ‘quality time’ to spend with family, friends, or by themselves. Some devoted their newfound free time to professional or personal development, while others were able to spend more time doing community or volunteer work.
This speaks to just how much work cuts into our personal lives. It’s troubling how often we’re forced to put work before our families, hobbies, and all else which invigorates us and makes us interesting. A four-day work week is one step towards addressing this, and the success of the trials like this one should have employees and employers alike taking note.