A New Zealand Company Tested A 4-Day Work Week. The Results Speak For Themselves.

Is this the future of work?

Workers at an Auckland, New Zealand firm were so productive during a test run of a shorter work week that the company is now considering making the change permanent.

Andrew Barnes, the founder and CEO of Perpetual Guardian, which handles wills, trusts and estates in New Zealand, said he came across research in The Economist that suggested average people were only productive about two and a half hours a day. The research got him thinking if he could help maintain his company's productivity and improve their work-life balance by giving them the option to work fewer hours. 

"It's a quid quo pro," Barnes told A Plus. "If I get my productivity, I'll give you a free day every week."

Barnes wasn't entirely sure how the experiment would work, but put trust in his 240 employees to use their best judgement and take a day off during the week whenever they liked. He also gave employees the option to work fewer hours each day, and still work five-day weeks, if they preferred. For two months, the company reduced required work hours from 40 to 32, and brought Jarrod Haar, a human resources professor at Auckland University of Technology, to monitor the results.

What he and the leaders at Perpetual Garden found surprised even the biggest optimists about the experiment.

"When I looked at employee data, they were just amazingly re-energized," Haar told A Plus. "Stress was down, work-life balance was up… not only did they do their normal job, they were able to do things better."

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Supervisors at the firm, many of whom who Barnes said were skeptical if not outright concerned about the experiment, reported that their team's performance had stayed steady while morale went up. Supervisors also noted that the teams had become more creative and helpful working across departments in order to get work done in the allotted 32 hours. 

Haar, while speaking to employees, heard a range of responses about how they were spending their time off. Some went to the gym, others gardened, and many spent more time outside. Some of the people who chose to continue working five days a week used their shortened days to take their kids to school and pick them up, which reduced their childcare costs and gave them more time with their families. 

"We expected people's work-life balance to go up, but we didn't expect stress levels and the way that people did their workload to go down," Barnes said. "I think people were able to work smarter rather than work harder."

(Employees of Perpetual Guardian, left to right): Christine Brotherton, Zandri Spies-Clarke, Andrew Barnes and Tony Tung. Perpetual Guardian

While he knows it isn't a one-size fits all adjustment for any company, Barnes is planning to make the changes permanent.

"A lot of companies, I fear, don't have that culture or they don't have the confidence to do what is a broadly a bottom-up restructure of the business," Barnes said. "But we can have a more powerful, more stimulated workforce operating better as a team, delivering in fact better productivity and on the face of it better customer outcomes… I mean it's pretty hard to see a downside in that."

Similar experiments have been tried with varied results in different parts of the world. The New York Times reported that in Sweden, a mandated six-hour day resulted in improved productivity while in France, an experiment in 2000 to reduce the work week to 35 hours left businesses complaining about increased cost and reduced competitiveness. 

There were other, less expected outcomes at Perpetual Guardian. Meetings were shortened from two hours to thirty minutes, Barnes said. At work, with 20 percent fewer people there on any given day, there seemed to be fewer distractions. Now, with their research being shared with the public, Barnes said he's heard from the Australian government — which is interested in the research and flexible working — as well as unions across New Zealand.

"I think we will see more people taking this up," Barnes said. "I think it's an initiative that can help to start mindsets.. and I think that's a great thing."

Cover image via YIUCHEUNG / Shutterstock.com.

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