The four-day workweek seems to be in the shadow of businesses everywhere. In an effort to find a healthier work-life balance, the change to a shorter workweek seems like a welcoming change in the new decade. With workers, especially Millennials, stressing that work is a leading cause of career burnout, a shorter week would help alleviate some of the pressures of day-to-day. It could perhaps encourage employees to use vacation time instead of burning a combined 768 million days in 2018.
It could perhaps change the way the workforce operates.
Early signs of the four-day workweek have been a success. Microsoft Japan recently ran a four-day workweek trial for an entire month recently finding that nearly all of its employees in the test were in favor of a shortened workweek, and as a by-product of working reduced hours, there was a boom in production. That study yielded increased production for the company by nearly 40%. In Finland, Sanna Marin, the country’s prime minister, is seeking an even more radical approach by trying to instill a four-day workweek or six-hour workday.
The aspirations by companies and world leaders for a more balanced working life come on the heels of the original experiment by Perceptual Guardian CEO Andrews Barnes, who launched perhaps the strongest argument for the four-day workweek to date.
“To be honest, it started more by accident,” Barnes, the author of, “The Four Day Week,” told Ladders recently.
Barnes said he had read about employee productivity in British and Canadian companies that suggested workers were only productive for at most two-and-a-half hours a day. He wanted to know if this was happening at his company. So he did a trial run with outsider researchers of the shortened schedule at his company in New Zealand between a two-month span in 2018. The more than 240 employees were still paid for five days of work but worked one less day a week.
The results yielded massive revelations. Prior to the experiment, only 54% of respondents said they had a grasp on a work-life balance. At the end of the trial, the number jumped by more than 20% to a resounding 78%. In addition, the stress levels of the employees decreased by 7%.
On the business side, the trial saw a 20% rise in Perceptual Guardian’s workplace production. It was so much of a success that Barnes decided to implement the model full-time.
“The beauty of the four-day week [is] it’s an employee benefit that doesn’t cost you anything,” Barnes explained. “The deal is you go and you get the reduced hours if productivity is the same. The experience of most companies that try this is that productivity doesn’t stay the same, it actually goes up.”
The argument for a shortened workweek
There have been radical billionaires who have varying opinions on the future of work. Alibaba Group chairman Jack Ma recently said companies should embrace an even shorter workweek, having people work just 12 hours a week, due to the rise in artificial intelligence. Others, like Tesla’s Elon Musk, said workers need to dedicate around 80 hours a week to their job in order to make an impact.
“There are way easier places to work, but nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week,” Musk said.
When asked about both these ideas, Barnes laughed.
“They are extremely wealthy as a consequence of running their businesses, but in their businesses are a bunch of normal men and women, who do not aspire to or do not necessarily have the ability to climb to the top of the tree in their respective businesses,” Barnes said. “What they need is a different thing. What they want is the chance to have a decent wage, they want time to bring up their kids and be decent parents to their family’s, they want to contribute to their communities — they want a good family life, or they want a good life themselves. You have to accept the fact that there’s always going to be people who want to do this concept of working incredibly long hours, whether or not that is truly productive.”
This is where Barnes’ gameplan comes to fruition. He calls it the “100-80-100” model, which means employees are paid 100% of their salary for 80% of the hours of their normal workweek provided the company gets 100% effort in return or full production. As a by-product, workers can have their workweek or workday reduced by 20%.
“What we’re talking about here is a bunch of little hacks,” Barnes explained. “It’s like not going into that meeting that you don’t really need to go into. It’s about shortening those meetings, making sure there’s a decent agenda for any meeting you go into. It’s having the ability to have a quiet hour or two to concentrate to get things done without interruption. It’s about not doing that unnecessary social internet surfing.”
For Barnes’ employees, they are all contracted to five-day workweek obligations and that benefit of being able to work a reduced week can be removed if the output doesn’t meet expectations. In the trial, one branch did fail to meet the standards due to leadership questions and being a recently acquired business that didn’t have the culture of the rest of Perpetual Guardian, according to Barnes. Employees mismanaged the premise of working fewer hours but not keeping production the same, so Barnes worked with them, placing them back on a five-day rotation so they could understand how the system actually works.
“They sort of took it as ‘Great, we’ll have a three-day weekend’ and that, of course, is not what we’re talking about,” Barnes said. “It’s about a shorter working week. It’s about balancing business objectives but giving people more time off to do the things they need to do.”
Why four-day workweeks should be embraced in the new decade
With Millennial workers open to taking less pay for reduced work hours, it makes sense for companies to start thinking about change to the work schedule. Better office arrangements and remote working opportunities were a start, but for the worker, what comes next?
In the US, it’s complicated. Workers are attuned to a rigorous work culture that isn’t common in other parts of the world. Past research has found that American workers work more than workers in any other country. In 2017, Americans worked 260 more hours — or about 11 more days — than workers in the UK.
By eliminating a day of work, it could help the world’s climate crisis by eliminating pollution via commuting traffic one day a week, according to Barnes. It can alleviate workplace stress, something Barnes saw in his study, and can potentially address the gender pay gap by shifting the conversation into a productivity direction by having all workers on a level playing field.
“The problem in the States is we’re all conditioned by this idea of working longer is working harder. This is not how we’ve done it,” said Barnes. “I believe leaders in the US have to start to think about what is the employment landscape going to look like going forward with a generation that very clearly doesn’t want the model that we’re trying to bequeath.”
In the US, Shake Shack CEO Randy Garutti recently rolled out a four-day workweek for managers at third of his company’s locations. The idea is strategic as it gives Shake Shack an “incredible competitive advantage” to retain employees, which is a sentiment Barnes echoed.
“Putting it simply, what do you do if your biggest competitor brings this policy in?” Barnes said. “How do you respond? You are likely to be dead in the water because they will get the talent. We win business precisely because we have this policy. People come out of their way to do it.”
For you, the boss
A shortened workweek isn’t about destroying the pleasantries of work. When Barnes explained the “hacks” of the 100-80-100 system, these hacks came from the suggestions of his employees. He encourages his employees to continue to gossip around the water cooler. He’s made the lunch area at the office larger to tell employees just because you are working a day less, doesn’t mean you need to be strapped to your desk all day.
“This is a bottom-up driven strategy,” he said.
And for Barnes, the pleasures beyond increased production is a happier workforce. He recalled a story about one of his employees who uses his four-day week by taking two afternoons off per week. He goes home for a walk and sees his granddaughters and his daughter for dinner. They do chores and eat dinner together. Twice a week, the employee gets to experience this, something that wasn’t there before the four-day week was implemented.
“He tells the story and he cries,” Barnes said. “That’s what it means to him. Now he’s not going to do anything to prejudice his four-day week. That’s what motivates him. This isn’t about money — it’s about things you can’t put a value on.”