Secrets of a four-day week, from an owner who wants every company to try it

The first rule of a four-day work week? Don't call it a "wellness" effort
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The four-day work week is a dream which many full-time workers think they’ll never achieve.

Yes, the benefits—more time with kids, more exercise, the chance to volunteer or pursue passions—could be great, but so too could be the sacrifices: lower wages, lower status, a potentially stagnating career, and perhaps a loss of respect from one’s managers or colleagues. And that’s if workers are even allowed to consider cutting their hours.

The head of a New Zealand company which trialed and then adopted a four-day week offered to all its staff—with no wage cuts or additional hours on work days—says he knows how to make it work for any company. It needn’t lead to a drop in revenue, he says, and there’s no excuse not to try it. Just one thing: Don’t talk about it in terms of employee wellbeing.

It’s a productivity policy

Andrew Barnes, the founder and owner of Perpetual Guardian, a firm that helps clients manage financial estates, says he was on an airplane reading an article about productivity hacks and shorter hours at a British firm when he had a “Damascus-like moment” and suddenly saw how to go about implementing the idea at his own company. Soon after, he told his 240-strong firm that they’d start a trial of a four-day work week, which ran in March and April 2018.

Emily Svadlenak, who runs marketing and communications for the company, was in the room in early 2018 when the staff was informed. She said it went completely silent. “We did not see it coming,” she says. Of course, being the owner meant Barnes didn’t have to clear his decisions with anyone, but he says he did inform senior management it was going to happen before addressing the company as a whole.

After running the trial and reviewing the results, Perpetual Guardian in November 2018 adopted the policy in perpetuity.

Barnes says there are a few simple steps to follow to achieve a successful transition, and the cardinal rule is this: Focus on productivity, not wellbeing, when explaining the policy. A four-day week could make employees happier. But, even if that’s proven to be true—and even if it’s accompanied by evidence that a four-day week can improve or at least not hurt revenue—CEOs are always going to worry about how the bottom line will be affected. Barnes says he didn’t try to tell his teams how to work more productively in a contracted week: He asked them to tell him how they’d do it. If they could make a good case, he’d “gift” them a day off every week.

“We have no idea how to do this,” Barnes says he told his teams, with the result that they began to engage fully with the question. “We sat down with each team and we said, ‘Right, let’s agree what is the base of productivity that you’re delivering now,’” he says. “And then the deal was, provided you delivered on the productivity goals, you would be gifted a day off a week.”

Since then, the trajectory of the policy has been swift, from idea, to trial, to implementation. The trial was lauded as a resounding success by the company in July 2018. Academics from Auckland University of Technology and the University of Auckland Business School, who helped design the trial, analyzed the data. They found that 78% of staff felt able to manage work and other commitments after the trial, compared to 54% before. Productivity increased by about 20% during the trial, while revenue remained steady.

Global interest in Perpetual Guardian’s experience has been intense. Barnes says he has appeared on Bulgarian television and Colombian drive-time radio, while the firm has received interested delegations from Japan, Korea, and France. Last month, Christine Brotherton, head of people and capability at Perpetual Guardian, visited the Wellcome Trust in London to discuss the experience, after the science funder said it was considering running a similar trial.

On Feb. 19, Perpetual Guardian is releasing a white paper which, Barnes says, will provide a toolkit for companies interested in running their own trial, and which will include details on how to write contracts and design a trial for a four-day week.

Monitoring employee wellbeing

Of course, Barnes does talk about wellbeing. His point in emphasizing productivity is that in putting the onus on his teams to agree on their metrics and work out a strategy for achieving goals, he’s putting the power to make the policy work in their hands. The reward is a day off each week, but it’s also potentially a sense of much greater agency.

Barnes says the people who were most resistant were middle management. They’ve also been the people most deeply changed.

“If you’ve got a leadership team, the challenge that leaders have is that they then say: “I’ve been conditioned all my life that working longer equals working harder. And I am responsible for output,” Barnes says. “And so the people that are most skeptical about this are actually middle management, because they’re the people who are going to have to deliver on the policy.” Perpetual Guardian’s four-day week trial ended up exposing weak points in leadership, and improved staff engagement to the extent that middle managers found they could delegate more easily, Barnes says. “It actually opened their eyes to being a leader rather than a manager.”

Willem van der Steen is one such manager. At 44, he’s head of digital and IT at Perpetual Guardian and oversees a team of around 15 people, as well as contractors and interns. He says the change has been “fantastic” for his team’s need for flexibility. Company policy previously dictated that staff be present between 8:30 am and 5 pm, but that made no sense when digital problems often had to be addressed out of hours. Now his team members report on what they plan to accomplish in a given timeframe, but then set their own hours and are trusted to deliver.

“It’s almost like a social contract with the team and the rest of the business,” van der Steen says. One repercussion is that developers and other team members can’t simply show up, they have to deliver. “You can’t really hide anymore,” he notes. Another result is an improvement in “the simple things,” he says, like commuting outside of rush hour. Rather than take a day off per week, van der Steen takes several shorter days, picking up his eight-year-old son from school on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays.

Svadlenak, meanwhile, is at a different stage in her career: Turning 24, she’s keen to use her Fridays for extra training. One day a month, she drives around 80 km from Auckland to the district of Waikato, where she’s involved with a group mentoring refugee girls.

What’s the catch?

Supposedly generous policies sometimes go wrong. Earlier this month, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced it was slashing paid parental leave from a year to six months, saying the longer leaves had been too difficult for the organization to implement. (Although as Quartz at Work’s Lila MacLellan points out, whole countries—including the UK and Canada—manage to give parents 12 months of time off without their industries collapsing.) Could the four-day week be similarly challenging to implement? A policy that sounds too good to be true, and is?

That’s certainly possible. As critics have pointed out, productivity is easy to measure if you’re manufacturing bags of cement, for example, but harder to judge if your output is less concrete.

Another possibility is that a shortened work week winds up swapping one form of stress for another. Barnes himself says employees tend to police one another’s behavior, since someone shirking their productivity responsibilities could lead to a whole team’s four-day-week privileges being revoked. (Barnes was clear that there was no promise of keeping the short weeks if productivity goals slide.) That could well lead to anxiety—the feeling, as van der Steen put it, of having nowhere to hide.

🎧 For more, listen to the Work Reconsidered podcast episode on the four-day workweek. Or subscribe via: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google | Stitcher.

Some people, indeed, do find it too stressful to pack their work into four days, or have other reasons for opting for a full-time routine. At Perpetual Guardian the choice is up to employees—the four-day week is optional. Barnes says at the peak of the trial about 85% of people opted in. Since the adoption of the policy in November 2018, about half the staff have opted in, and Perpetual Guardian says it expects three quarters to take it up eventually.

Different industries and companies of different sizes also experience particular pressures. Could an airline get its planes aloft if crew and pilots worked one day less per week? Would factories produce what was needed? Could farms survive? Barnes’ contention is not that the structure will work for every company, but that finding a way to run a trial in which productivity is the metric and autonomy over time is the reward should be high on every owner’s to-do list.

“We’re saying to companies all over the world: Just try this,” Barnes says. “What’s the worst that can happen? If you do a trial, your staff will love you for it, even if it fails.”

Meanwhile, there are potentially deeper social consequences than happy staff. The gender pay gap is a global, persistent problem that’s been slow to change in part because it’s structural: Women tend to take time off to have children, and are often paid less than men when they return because they choose to work part time. In an environment where everyone works part time and men, as well as women, are automatically freed up for some childcare, fewer women will have to make the choice between her career or her children’s needs. Fewer couples will have to make the choice that the man should go back sooner, and on a full-time schedule, because he’s already being paid more, a common economic decision that further skews the workplace away from gender equality.

Barnes, who admits to being “an evangelist” for the policy, says he thinks wider adoption would have other big benefits, including less pressure on infrastructure and an effort in the fight against climate change, as “a whole pile” of cars are taken off the roads for a chunk of the working week. Also, with the advent of artificial intelligence, people need to train and upskill. They could do so, like Svadlenak, during their time off without sacrificing their weekends.

“We are all recognizing that how we work today is not fit for the 21st century, that the pressures of work-life balance are intense, and that the concept of how we work needs to change,” Barnes says. It sounds perilously close to someone who wants to make people happier.