There’s been a growing call in recent years for more and more businesses to swap in a four-day work week for the standard five-day one — and a New Zealand company’s trial of a four-day work week is making a strong case for providing employees with lengthier weekends. Kiwi trustee company Perpetual Guardian instituted a temporary four-day work week at the beginning of March, and now that they’re more than halfway through it, it’s becoming clear that a lot of positive results are coming out of the experiment.
In the United States, the five-day work week originated during the Industrial Revolution. According to The Atlantic, a mill in New England instituted the schedule in 1908 to accommodate employees of varying religions; then, in 1926, Henry Ford adopted the 40-hour, five-day work week at his automotive factories in an effort to establish work-life balance for employees, according to History.com — although he also underlined the importance of increasing productivity on the job to offset the time spent off it. Other factories soon followed suit, and voila: The five-day work week officially became A Thing.
And, interestingly, experiments in adopting four-day work weeks are often being carried out today for similar reasons that Ford created the five-day week nearly a century ago.
Perpetual Guardian first announced the trial back in February, stating that, for a period of six weeks beginning in March, the company’s 200 staffers would work a four-day week with the intention of seeing whether the shortened schedule had an effect on productivity. What made the trial different from other similar experiments that have been carried out recently, though, was the fact that employees would see neither cuts to their salaries nor an increase in the length of their workdays during the six weeks. “We have seen cases where employees work for fewer days of the week or they earn 75 percent of their full-time salary, but that is not what we’re doing here,” said Andrew Barnes, founder of Perpetual Guardian, to the New Zealand Herald at the time.
The goal of the trial, said the company, was to take steps toward increasing both staff productivity and happiness on the job the job. According to the Herald, an internal survey recently conducted at Perpetual Guardian found that 80 percent of staff were happy with the flexibility of their annual leave; however, a lower percentage (72) reported that they felt they had flexibility in their arrangements and schedules, and an even lower one (66) thought that they’d have an equal shot at promotion if their work-life balance was split evenly between job and home obligations.
The findings prompted the company to begin asking themselves questions, said Christine Brotherton, head of people and capability for Perpetual Guardian: “How can we energize our staff to be more productive and innovative in what we do and how we do it? How can we make our measurements of productivity clearer and easier to report on? How can we draw on our good levels of engagement to empower people to lift their productivity and to provide a great place to work?” Hence, the four-day work week trial during which employees continue to make the same salaries they did previously while working fewer hours overall.
So: How's it going? Well, according to a mid-trial report from the Guardian, things are generally looking up. One employee, Kristen Taylor, said that people do still socialize somewhat during the workday, but the office is quieter, the environment more focused, and the “water-cooler chats” shorter. It’s something she said works well with her personality and work style; “I am feeling significantly better equipped when I begin the work week now,” she said.
Christine Brotherton said something similar to the Guardian, noting that, after “thinking quite hard about that third day off and how best to use it so it can change their life,” many employees now “come back to work [on Monday] and are incredibly energized.” With that extra weekend day, said Brotherton, “People have been training for marathons, going to the dentist, getting their car serviced, or doing the shopping for their elderly parents. All the stuff that has been put on the back burner, but either helps themselves or their family. Life administration”; then, during the week, the old adage of working smarter, not harder, has reigned supreme.
Of course, exactly what “work smarter, not harder” means depends on who you’re talking to — and what works best for you personally. Taking breaks is commonly recommended advice; the suggestion is to work for 90 minutes, then take a 15-minute break, although others note that it makes more sense to pay attention to your individual energy cycles and plan your breaks around them instead of sticking to a rigid 90/15 rule. For some people, powering through everything when you feel like you’re falling behind is the way to go, but for others, it makes more sense to stop when you’re feeling overwhelmed instead of working late. That way, you’ve got room to breathe, which might help you come up with an actual plan on how to tackle what you’ve got left. And while some recommend using your odd moments of dead air to get small tasks done instead of wasting time, it’s also recommended that you don’t procrastinate by doing things that technically need to get done, but which are probably going to serve you less in the long run than attacking your meatier projects.
(This is me. I am that person. I’m usually good about getting things done on time, but when I’m dragging my feet on something, I procrastinate by getting something else done instead. It is a bad, bad habit. Don’t be like me.)
Brotherton did note that not everyone has boosted their productivity in the time they have available during the trial. “Some people haven’t quite realized that if we have three days off, the four at the office have to be very productive, and we need to address that” — and, indeed, it’s possible that this observation might indicate that, for all its seeming success, the trial is suffering a few commonly cited pitfalls of the four-day work week, too. In a 2016 piece for The Conversation that was syndicated to CNN, Allard Dembe observed that the four-day work week can have a negative effect on employee’s physical and mental health; fatigue can result from needing to get five days’ worth of work done in four, while stress levels can skyrocket for similar reasons. Indeed, Anisa Purbasari Horton at Fast Company found earlier this year that when she experimented with a four-day work week herself, she became much more stressed than she typically was.
She did, however, note that she developed better work habits as a result of the experiment — so, even if Perpetual Guardian ultimately goes back to a five-day work week, their trial won’t necessarily have been fruitless. As Brotherton told the New Zealand Herald, the company doesn’t expect to get answers to all their questions out of it — but it will help point them in new directions to explore as they work to figure out how to keep employees both productive and happy. And that, I feel is a good attitude to have; happy employees really are productive employees, after all.
Check out the 4-Day Work Week Trial Blog at Perpetual Guardian’s website to find out more about how it’s been going.