The four-day work week is coming, so you'd better get ready

Some have embraced this new way of working with open arms, so it's about time to find out if it's too good to be true.
Written by Aimee Chanthadavong, Contributor
Image: sinseeho/Getty Images

It is no secret the last two years has forced organisations and their staff to rethink what work-life balance should look like, and what it will continue to look like once more people return to the office.

While there are multiple ways that organisations can help staff achieve work-life balance, a key part of that conversation has been around offering staff flexible working arrangements, such as remote working and flexible hours. Another format -- and one that's on the rise -- is four-day work weeks.  

Organisations offering compressed work weeks -- full-time hours over four days rather than five, for example -- has risen by 29% over the last four years, where more than one in four Australian organisations are offering this benefit to employees, Mercer's 2021 Australian Benefits Review indicated.

"People are resetting their work-life balance, and are saying, 'We've done the full-time working at home [during the pandemic], my employees trust me, so how about, I compress my workdays into four days'," Chi Tran, Mercer head of market insights and data told ZDNet.

"This could be working longer hours in the first four days and possibly having Friday off, or whichever day in the week off, and so more and more are coming through. It's not a policy set in place, but it's definitely a conversation that organisations are not saying 'no' to…it's becoming more of an option."

Putting policy into practice

Panasonic is one company that recently announced it will introduce four-day work weeks to help employees achieve better work-life balance, but has not determined when the new policy will be implemented.

Panasonic resident and group CEO Yuki Kusumi told investors earlier this year that introducing a four-day work week will mean the company can "flexibly accommodate diverse situations of our employees".

"We must support the wellbeing of each employee at Panasonic to enhance our competitiveness…Panasonic has approximately 240,000 employees globally with diverse personalities and capabilities. Our responsibility is to strike an ideal balance between the work style and lifestyle for our diverse human capital," she said.

It follows in the footsteps of Microsoft Japan, which had trialled the concept in 2019, as part of the company's objective to improve productivity and creativity. At the end of the trial, the company published the result, which indicated a rise in productivity, measured by sales per employee, that came close to 40%, while an overwhelming 92% of employees said they were in favour of a four-day week.

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But this movement is no longer just happening company-wide; governments around the world are also jumping on the bandwagon at a policy level.

Belgium announced a reform package in February that would entitle workers in the country to four-day work weeks, as well as the right to turn off work devices and ignore work-related messages after hours, without fear of reprisal. The introduction came after the European country gave civil servants the right to disconnect from work calls or emails outside of work hours.

Other countries that have enacted or are trialling four-day work programs include Iceland, Japan, United Arab Emirates, Scotland, and Spain. It was also a move that New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern encouraged businesses to support, saying it would help employees address work-life balance issues, particularly as they returned back to the office.

The 100-80-100 rule explained

The global movement gained momentum after Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand financial services company, became one of the first big companies in the world in 2018 to implement four-day work weeks permanently while it continued to pay staff for five days of work. It was introduced after the company ran a trial with 240 staff.

The trial, which was monitored by the University of Auckland and Auckland University of Technology, claimed to have resulted in a 20% rise in productivity, as well as an overall improvement in staff wellbeing and engagement.

"To be honest, we had no idea what we were doing but what we found was a material change in engagement in things like how the team performed that went up about 40%, stress levels dropped 15%, people said they could do their job better by working four days, rather than five," Perpetual Guardian founder Andrew Barnes said.

For Barnes, the trial was the "genesis of the 100-80-100 rule where it's 100% pay, 80% time, provided we get 100% productivity".

According to Barnes, the interest that was received from other companies and government following Perpetual Guardian's implementation of the four-day work week was so significant he and his wife, Charlotte Lockhart, established the 4 Day Week Global community so learnings and resources could be shared with others.

"It became clear we needed a structure, so we setup 4 Day Work Week Global," said Lockhart, who is also the managing director of the not-for-profit campaign.

"Through that, we had all sorts of infinitely interesting conversations, and we supported a number of businesses, including the Unilever New Zealand office to get their trial up and running…so we've ended up in a situation where we've had to create this program … what that looks like is we create a community for businesses to go through the experience together."

The 4 Day Week Global six-month pilot program is currently live in the US, UK, and Ireland. It is also scheduled to be launched in Australia and New Zealand in August, followed by Israel in October.

Putting it to the test

One of those participating companies in the pilot is cloud firm SimPro, which has offices in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, and is about two months into the trial.

Speaking to ZDNet, SimPro executive chairman, director, and CEO Sean Diljore admitted that prior to the pilot, the company was a "heavy in the office five days a week" workplace, but it all changed after staff repeatedly requested for workplace flexibility and the business shifted its focus to be "outcome driven".

"If enough people throw rocks at you, eventually even old people's brains will open up a little bit and you'll start considering it," he said.

"What my team, the executive group, did was we spent about eight months working through the pros and cons of how remote work would work, and try to design it in a way to give people what they were asking for, which was flexibility, but also try to cater to other things people were raising, like, 'I get my washing down at home'…and try marry what we wanted as a business, which is I like people to spend time with each other face to face."

See: Remote working jobs: 5 problems we need to solve in 2022

Diljore said in practical terms this mean some staff who work mandated shifts four days a week, while others, especially working parents, are working shorter hours across five days.

"It's a melting pot. The way it's driven is each executive is working with their team … to work out what will work for them as a team, what will work for the individuals, while making sure that the outcomes from a customer's perspective and an internal perspective are met," he said.

As Barnes puts it, the concept of four-day work weeks is about reducing the amount of time with a productivity focus.

"That also means that you can apply that formula to part-time staff. It isn't dependent upon days working; it's output focused. It's formulaic that if we're paying you for five days, you have to give us five days of output, you only have to work four," he said.

But adopting a four-day work week has not been an easy one for SimPro, assured Diljore, pointing out that the process has required reassuring staff of the change.  

"Not everyone bought into it straightaway. People had to think through what it means. Does that mean I have to work 12 hours every day?" he said.

When asked about what impact four-day work weeks have had on SimPro's business productivity, Diljore said "all the numbers remain really good".

"I can't say I'm seeing a massive uplift in productivity, but I was interested in that anyway," he said.  

"If we get the numbers to hit where we want it to hit, and we've also created a workplace that rewards our staff … allows them to build up a life that they enjoy, then the company wins. If we end up getting slightly better performance long term -- great. But if we just keep status quo, we're still ahead -- happier staff, better people, better for business."

Giving new meaning to flexible working

Tran emphasised four-day work weeks may not suit everyone, however, suggesting that rather it is another form of flexible working that organisations are starting to embrace as they investigate the possibilities of what the modern workplace looks like.

"It doesn't work for everyone; it's more about having that option and being able to say, 'You know what, it's not a closed box'. If you look this five years ago, no-one would've dared to raise it as having that conversation…but it's definitely a possibility now," she said.

On the flipside, Lockhart argued that four-day work weeks are inevitably part of the next evolution in the modern workplace, particularly when "money just isn't the same driver as it used to be".

"Whether it's a four-day week or reduced-hour work week, this is the new way of working," she said.

"Everyone recognises, even from a macroeconomic perspective, we all recognise that productivity is the conundrum we need to solve, and we can't do that by just continuing to do what we do now. We have to move forward." 

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