“It was like the worst half hour of my life,” said Margaret Cox.
Cox, the director of ICE Group, a recruitment firm based in Galway, Ireland, was recalling the moment in May 2019 when she announced to her company that they’d be moving to a four-day week. The news was greeted with “absolute silence,” Cox said.
Only later, after reviving cups of tea, did the questions begin. It turned out that many of the staff thought the announcement—which had been planned for in secret by Cox, her co-director Felim McDonnell, and a small, select committee—was some kind of joke.
It wasn’t a joke. Cox, who spent 10 years as a senator in Ireland and has worked with ICE Group for more than three decades, had started talking with McDonnell months earlier about whether a four-day week—in which hours would be cut by 20% but salaries, holiday allowance, and other benefits would stay the same—could work at ICE.
They’d heard about other companies trying the model, like New Zealand’s Perpetual Guardian, which moved to a four-day week in November 2018 after a research-based trial. (The firm’s owner, Andrew Barnes, has since become something of an international evangelist for the concept.) And they’d heard about the supposed benefits: happier, more loyal workers, lower staff turnover, and increased efficiency.
Even so, the initial discussion wasn’t all that serious, Cox said. But something about the idea stuck.
Cox and McDonnell convened a small working group to meet for half an hour every day and work through all the likely problems. (McDonnell at one point dubbed it “the pessimist committee” since all it did was raise concern after concern.) After six weeks of daily planning, the group members felt they were in a position to try it out. Cox announced it to staff in mid-May, effective from July 2019.
Some 13 weeks in, she is emphatic: The firm’s full-time staff of more than 50 in Ireland are “delighted,” processes are more efficient, and key performance indicators they use to track work (such as sales, the number of people the placement firm puts in jobs, the percentage of calls returned within a certain amount of time) are being met and in some cases exceeded compared to when they worked five days.
“I can only describe it to you as that ‘bank holiday week’ feeling,” Cox said, referring to the three-day weekends that occur when public holidays give UK workers an occasional Monday or Friday off. (ICE staff work either Monday-Thursday or Tuesday-Friday, meaning all their weekends are three days long; a contrast to Perpetual Guardian, which leaves structuring of time up to teams.)
ICE prides itself on changing lives for the better by finding people jobs, Cox said. But “this was an opportunity for us to change the lives of our employees.”
Cox hopes the luxurious feeling will keep staff motivated to ensure productivity doesn’t slip in time; to help, the company has changed the way its staff, based in Galway, Dublin, Sligo, and Limerick, behave at a day-to-day level.
The firm has invested in new technology that has made processes more streamlined. But alongside that, “people’s habits have been changing” to allow more focus, Cox said. Staff take fewer ad hoc breaks, aren’t “checking Facebook every 15 minutes,” and have put their phones away.
That’s part of an etiquette charter the company has instituted to encourage colleagues to respect one another’s work. Shifts at ICE involve staggered start times, and Cox said there are now guidelines in place that discourage the people who start at 8:30 am from interrupting those who started at 8 am, and so forth.
Meetings have changed, too. Every meeting has an agenda with time limits for every item, and people arrive on time or risk being asked to leave. The firm also introduced weekly 30-minute standup meetings specifically for people who are blocked on a task to ask for help. The idea is that if there’s a time built into the week for talking through problems, people needing input won’t have to go in search of colleagues, thereby pulling them off the projects they’re working on. Ideally, it also means the person in need of help won’t waste time on an intractable issue, but instead save it up in the knowledge that time has been allocated to address it.
Not reverting to old norms is the biggest challenge, Cox said.
Meanwhile, ICE staff are using their increased free time in different ways. Thus far, two people have gone back to college to study part time, and several parents report spending more time with their children. Others do more of what they love, like playing golf, while some take the opportunity to travel. (Cox, who admits she’s only worked “some” four day weeks so far, has used free days to explore the Wild Atlantic Way on Ireland’s coastline.)
ICE is a pioneer in Ireland, but trade unions and other groups are pushing for employers in the country to trial the structure. Fórsa, one of Ireland’s largest trade unions, said it hoped a four-day week structure could help change the culture around long working hours and support employment in the face of technological change. It recently staged events in Dublin to draw attention to the four-day idea; Perpetual Guardian’s Barnes traveled from New Zealand to take part in the 4 Day Week Ireland campaign, while Cox made the 200 km trip from Galway for the occasion.
The UK’s trade unions have been making similar calls for shortened work weeks. Last month the UK’s main opposition party, Labour, said it would bring a four-day week to the entire country if elected, though it remains unclear how the proposal would work in practice. Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s prime minister, has been talking seriously about moving to a four-day week, with the aims of tackling unemployment rates, burnout, and fatigue.
Barnes, whose experiments in New Zealand have, he said, sparked thousands of enquiries from 76 countries, said top-down isn’t the right way to bring about change. Rather, businesses need to trial bespoke four-day weeks tailored to their industry, he said.
Perpetual Guardian’s own model involves measuring productivity achieved in five days and benchmarking to that standard, then allowing teams and individuals to work out how to get there in 80% of the time. If they manage it, they get a day a week to use as they want; but if productivity slips, the terms of Perpetual Guardian’s contracts mean it can ask workers to move back onto a five-day schedule.
The massive interest in condensing the work week has led Barnes to start a foundation called 4 Day Week Global. He’s also written a book and has spent much of his time of late “having coffee in 76 countries” to talk about how to make the change. There’s particular interest in the UK, he said, including at least two large companies running trials. (They’re keeping a low profile until results are in, Barnes said, explaining why he couldn’t reveal exactly which companies are experimenting.)
Why has Barnes pivoted his life to focus on the four-day-week mission?
“The world is going through a pretty horrific epidemic around stress, mental health, the collapse almost of free time,” Barnes told Quartz.
A four-day week “starts to adjust the balance,” he said. “That balance, once restored, flows through into a lot of other things.”
Commuting less leads to lower pollution levels, and more time for parents to spend with kids, said Barnes. The knock-on effects can even help societies deal with the problem of jobs being lost to automation, he argued, because workers now have more time to up-skill. Shortened work weeks can also change the dynamics of gender pay gaps, because women returning to work after becoming mothers—a career moment that, research shows, is often the start of women’s pay diverging from men’s and ending up lower—are able to negotiate based on output, not time spent in the office.
“It gives back free time,” Barnes said. “And because it starts companies thinking about output, not time in the office, it also leads the drive towards fully flexible working.”