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Company tried 4-day workweek, and it worked great

Company tried 4-day workweek, and it worked great
(Dreamstime)

At one company in New Zealand, some employees no longer work on Fridays. Others don't work Wednesdays. But everyone is paid a full-time salary.

Perpetual Guardian, a statutory trust company with 240 employees, first tested a four-day workweek in early 2018, collaborating with academic researchers from two Auckland universities to study the impact on its business.

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After the eight-week-long trial, employees reported lower levels of stress, higher levels of job satisfaction and a much greater sense of work-life balance. Just as significantly, despite the reduced hours, productivity didn't decline.

In November, the company decided to make the changes permanent. Andrew Barnes, the company's founder, has thus far seen no downside. "In fact, the company is performing better than it did last year."

Barnes had noticed employees struggling to maintain work-life balance when he happened upon research about average levels of productivity. One U.K. survey suggests that British workers are productive for only two hours and 53 minutes each day.

By giving people an extra day off, he theorized, they might be better able to manage the other demands in their lives, which could be distracting them in the office.

He tasked employees with creating their own plans to maintain and measure productivity.

"The teams themselves sat down and said, 'How do we make lots of little changes that will enable us to deliver the outcome?'" Barnes says.

Meetings were shortened or cut. People spent less time browsing the internet. Employees experimented with small flags on their desks to signal to co-workers that they were busy and shouldn't be disturbed.

"At the end of the trial, most people said they were better able to deliver their workload over four days than the five," he says. Employees also reported feeling significantly more empowered than they had before the trial, more stimulated and satisfied by their jobs, more confident in the company leadership and more committed.

Work-life balance scores increased from 54 percent to 78 percent. Job stress dropped 7 percentage points.

Employees began gradually making the transition in November, and by early this year, roughly half of the staff had opted in. The company ultimately expects three-quarters of employees to make the change.

"It's real flexibility, not buzzword flexibility," says Emily Svadlenak, who works as the company's one-person marketing department.

She now takes Fridays off, and she says that having more breathing space on the weekend makes the rest of the week easier. Like other employees, she will have to meet certain performance standards to be able to opt into the program again at the end of the year.

Other companies, including multinational corporations, have approached Perpetual Guardian to learn more about the transition as they consider making similar changes. One is Wellcome Trust, a U.K. firm that is considering a four-day workweek trial with the 800 employees in its main office. Barnes is confident a larger-scale experiment will prove out the concept.

"If we were to have a country bold enough to really give this a go," he says, "I think we would find that actually there is not an adverse impact on the economy."

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The idea is not new. In 1930, during the Great Depression, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that we'd all have a 15-hour workweek "within 100 years."

In his own time, Keynes saw the rise of industrialization and assumed the trend toward more efficient work methods would continue. Once a worker earned enough to pay for necessities, he suggested, he or she would opt to spend more time at home or in leisure, reducing the workweek to only two or three days.

As an attractive fantasy to beleaguered workers throughout the century, the idea never quite left the public consciousness. Even Richard Nixon, during his vice presidency in 1956, predicted that the four-day workweek was coming "in the not too distant future."

The idea remained just an idea for close to a century, until 1998, when France enacted the first of its two "Aubry" laws that reduced the national workweek to 35 hours instead of 39, with excess hours counting as overtime. (In subsequent years, revisions have eroded much of the original laws.)

Their aim was to reduce their 12 percent unemployment rate (at the time) through work sharing, but the success of the legislation got other countries revisiting their standard work schedules.

With the tech disruption evident in the 21st century — similar to the "conveyor belt" tech disruption of the 1920s that ushered in the five-day workweek — the idea continues to snowball.

Even business mogul Richard Branson supports the shift to a shorter workweek, stating in a blog post: By working more efficiently, there is no reason why people can't work less hours and be equally — if not more — effective. People will need to be paid more for working less time, so they can afford more leisure time. That's going to be a difficult balancing act to get right, but it can be done.

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