Similarly, the views espoused by entrepreneurs such as Jack Ma and Elon Musk only serve to perpetuate the myth that long hours lead to increases in productivity and profitability. There is no credible evidence to suggest the more you work, the more productive, creative and efficient you become – in fact, the opposite is true.
There is also an increasing body of research and anecdotal evidence that working less hours and focusing on productive outcomes results in significant increases in a business’s productivity.
The successful trial in 2019 by Microsoft of a four-day week in Japan with their increase of productivity of 39.9 per cent was a well publicised, but by no means unique example of how this can be a reality for both large corporations not just small owner-operated businesses.
In the competition for good workers, businesses are faced with getting on board with some version of a reduced hours week.
Whilst the headline of the four-day week is what grabs attention, I am really arguing for a re-balancing of work and non-work time to deliver better productivity and profitability, whilst addressing key challenges facing our society; the mental health pandemic, climate change, congestion of our cities, lack of balance in gender pay and access to the ‘C’ suite and the impact of AI on our workforce, as well as the desire for better work-life balance desired by the millennial generation.
We express this as the 100:80:100 rule. 100 per cent of the pay, 80 per cent of the time, provided 100 per cent of productivity goals are achieved. This formula can be applied to all full time and part time employees and removes the linkage between time spent in work as the driver of compensation and performance in favour of output and productivity.
In our model, and that of the many who have followed us, employment contracts remain unchanged, with employees opting in to the four-day week, which is treated as a ‘gift’ which may be withdrawn if the employee does not deliver the agreed productivity.
Four-day week, or three-day weekend?
Another common obstacle is the mistranslation of four-day week as three-day weekend. For many large companies, a three-day weekend would be difficult to implement, if there is any expectation the organisation will maintain consistent customer service over their week.
Around the world we are beginning to see legislators modify existing laws to be adaptable to a variety of flexibility policies which may be desirable to the many employers who see the potential rewards in shorter work weeks with a more intense focus on output.
The most likely real-world outcome of a flexibility clause in employment legislation is a gentle push-pull between negotiators that does not place too much power in the hands of any one party.
In addition, we are seeing consumers exercising their collective responsibility to assess whether the companies they patronise are operating ethically, and to judge them on how they behave towards their employees, their communities and the environment.
The four-day week is both an argument for and a manifestation of ethical business operations; as industries continue to move towards more sustainable models, the question of sustainable employment – that which supports physical, mental and financial well-being and rebuffs the hand- to-mouth nature of the gig – becomes paramount.
There is mounting evidence that flexible working arrangements, as mutually beneficial agreements between employers and employees have measurable psychological, social and economic impacts – from a reduction in company operating costs to enhanced client and employee satisfaction.
Other benefits can be seen from decreasing overall traffic volumes and may contribute to a significant reduction in carbon emissions and in lost productivity as a consequence of commuting. Most flexible working arrangements mean skipping the commute and/or evading rush hour at least some of the time.
The four-day week has the potential to narrow the gender pay gap and create a more equal division of labour between women and men at work and at home.
It also has significant benefits for working mothers; in treating them as full-time employees by recognising their productivity, it signals that they can work four days a week and still advance their careers.
Likewise, it helps male workers take on more caring responsibilities without the perceived career sacrifices.
There is mounting evidence showing workers can be as productive in 32 hours as 40, and are less prone to stress-related illness or mental illness stemming from work. This is an increasingly critical issue given that one in five of our workforce at any point in time, is suffering from stress or mental illness.
How to make it work
So how can a four-day week be implemented?
To prepare the ground for the four-day week, build trust, don’t over think it, consider running a short trial, embrace time as the scarce resource, do your homework, and ensure you obtain appropriate legal advice.
Set your purpose first. The four-day week is only one form of flexible working, and it may not be right for every company. Be clear about what you want to achieve at every stratum, from the board to the leaders and staff. If your objectives are explicit at the start, success and milestones can be measured accurately.
Be honest with yourself about what is possible in your company in its current form. Keep asking your employees for their views. Ask them to think about, discuss and record how they will increase their own individual productivity and that of their team.
For company owners and leaders considering a four-day week, a trial is valuable. It allows you to gather data to compare your business to others of similar size in other markets and industries. And by testing the 100:80:100 model throughout the company, you can find out whether greater efficiency would come as a result of improved staff focus and motivation.
Let the trial and policy be led by those who will implement them – the workers – and understand that not all managers or employees will embrace or find it easy to adapt to a productivity policy. It may not suit all staff, making an opt-in model necessary.
To monitor the trial and its outcomes and generate useful data, consider engaging experts from outside the company.
When we decided to trial a four-day week at Perpetual Guardian we invited academic researchers to monitor what happened and were able to secure robust data on engagement and a host of other metrics.
The four-day week is just as viable in non- office-based businesses; it is simply a matter of starting by consulting staff as to the work week structure which works best for their life outside work.
A flexibility or productivity policy is primarily a test of leadership. The ability of the leader to comprehend the potential application of the policy in their business, and then articulate it to staff and other decision-makers, will seal its fate.
Either way, this is a trend that is at its tipping point around the world. In the global competition for the good workers, businesses are now faced with getting on board with the four-day week, or some version of a reduced hours week, or they will be left behind as others seriously tackle their own version of the future of work.
Andrew Barnes is the founder of New Zealand corporate trustee Perpetual Guardian.
The 4 Day Week – How the flexible work revolution can increase productivity, profitability and well- being, and help create a sustainable future by Andrew Barnes (Hachette Australia) is published on January 14.