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The Four Day Work Week - Here's What You Need To Know

Posted by Mathew French

27 November 2018

The way we work is in constant flux. Old assumptions about the best way to work are being questioned. New ways of doing business are being tested against productivity measures, return on investment and benefit to employees. A hot topic at the moment is the four day work week, but will it work for everyone? The reality is that absenteeism is a major ongoing problem in Australia. The rate of absenteeism across the country continues to rise, with as much as 5% of the Australian workforce calls in sick on any given day. To put it another way, this means that in a company with 20 employees, there will be one absence every single day. An unexpected employee absence can cost a business as much as $340 a day, while the annual cost to the Australian economy of lost productivity through absenteeism is a staggering $33 billion, with a total of 92 million working days being lost through unexpected absences. Whether it is a sign of entitlement or burnout, the impact these levels of absenteeism have on business are significant and some businesses are trying different ways of working in an effort to transform this challenge.

The Perpetual Guardian Case Study

Perpetual Guardian held a trial of a four-day working week across its offices earlier this year and recently released the results. When Perpetual Guardian Managing Director Andrew Barnes told his staff that they would be trialling a four day week on the same pay they received for five days, there was stunned silence then nervous laughter. But the experiment worked well and the firm will now make the change permanent. The company claimed productivity increased by 20 per cent, and staff were more engaged and enthusiastic. Barnes also said that the trial held a key lesson for working mothers, saying that women should stop negotiating on hours and insist on being assessed (and paid) based on productivity instead. 'Women generally are paid less because they work fewer hours after returning to work from maternity leave, even though they might be delivering the same level of productivity as someone working five days a week,' he shared in an interview on Radio National's Best Practice.

Barnes has been interviewed across multiple channels since the release of the study, and shared the following behavioural changes with Fast Company: 'Employees spent less time in meetings. They spent less time on social media. They started experimenting with signals on their desks–like a flag in a small pot next to their computer to indicate to coworkers when they shouldn’t be interrupted. (Studies have found that it can take more than 20 minutes to get focused after an interruption). Because there were fewer people in the office, noise and distractions went down. And despite the fact that the staff was spending 20% less time in the office, productivity didn’t fall.'

He also made it clear that 'Job satisfaction, though fairly high before the experiment, ticked upward, as did employees’ sense of satisfaction with their lives in general. Perception of workload went down. Job stress declined from 45% to 38%. Employees’ sense of engagement with their work went up, and their commitment to their employer rose from 68% to 88%. They found their work more stimulating, had more confidence in the leadership team, and felt more empowered in their roles.'

The Research Perspective

Scientific research illustrates the numerous benefits a reduced work week can provide to employees. Research from the Australian National University (ANU) shows the work limit for a healthy life should be set at 39 hours a week instead of the 48-hour limit set internationally about 80 years ago. Australians currently work more than almost anyone else in the developed world. According to the most recent data from The Australia Institute, the average employee puts in over 42 hours a week, of which about 15 per cent is extra, unpaid work. Associate Professor John Spoehr from Flinders University's Australian Industrial Transformation Institute said that in our current culture of long hours, anyone who switches to a four-day week risks being overloaded. In Australia, that tends to be mostly women.

'We don't have a formal policy or strategy in Australia around the four-day week,' Professor Spoehr said. 'One of the main opportunities that exists for people to work a shorter week is to opt for compressed hours, where you compress five days of work into four days, or nine days into a fortnight.'

The Four Day Week Doesn't Work For Everyone

Some people report feeling more stressed at the end of trialling a four day work week. Fast Company's Assistant Editor Anisa Purbasari Horton ran her own experiment and shared the following in her article about it. 'First, it made me more stressed. Unpredictable work came up, other tasks got pushed to the bottom of my to-do pile, but at some point, they still needed to be done. As a result, I ended up working longer hours to fit everything into my four-day deadline. Some days, that was worth doing, but other days, I just felt exhausted or annoyed that I had to cancel my evening plans.'

However, on a more positive front, Anisa report that her failures forced her to take a closer look at her work habits, and be a lot more rigorous about planning, reflecting, and readjusting plans when last-minute work comes up. She now dedicates Sunday evenings to reflect on the progress that was made the week before, and uses those insights to plan out how she's going to tackle the upcoming workweek. Also, she now never leaves work without writing a to-do list for the next day, which gives her no choice but to look at progress, or lack of progress daily.

The Limitations Of A Four Day Work Week

It is clear that a four-day work week can work for some organisations, but even Perpetual Guardian's Andrew Barnes admits that the devil is in the detail. A trial with clearly defined parameters is an essential part of the assessing if a four day work week would work in your business. There also needs to be business wide alignment on processes, a commitment to pre-agreed outcomes and changes to contractual obligations to make sure that different ways of working succeed. Individual differences, in addition to the day-to-day requirements of any given role, will also impact the viability of this type of change and how it will impact your business as the future of work evolves.

One thing you can be sure of is that any trials or changes you make to your ways of working need to be communicated, measured and monitored to ensure that you meet your business and legal compliance obligations. HR software provides exactly this type of functionality, giving you the tools to manage the administrative burden of these types of changes with ease.

If you're still shuffling paper and wrangling spreadsheets in your HR department, its time to discover a whole new world of efficiency and freedom from administrative overload. We've got a series of discovery videos that you can explore from the comfort of your own desk, simply click on the button below to access them.

Topics: Four day work week, HR best practice, HR blog

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