Earlier this year Perpetual Guardian, a Kiwi company that manages estate planning, wills and trusts, decided to undertake a ground-breaking corporate experiment. During March and April, all of its 240 staff were given the choice to have a three-day weekend for the same pay that they would receive working a full 40-hour week. In other words, they would work eight hours a day, four days a week, and still get paid as if they had worked five.
The idea came straight from Perpetual Guardian’s founder and CEO, Andrew Barnes, who wanted to improve his employees’ ability to find the right balance between their corporate duties and their personal obligations and home commitments. As Barnes explained in a press statement when the landmark trial was announced:
We want people to be the best they can be while they’re in the office, but also at home. It’s the natural solution.
With the help of two academic researchers, the company spent eight weeks monitoring staff stress levels, work-life balance, productivity and team engagement. Jarrod Haar, a human resource professor at the Auckland University of Technology, and Dr Helen Delaney, senior lecturer at the University of Auckland’s Business School, observed the company’s employees throughout the process, gathering a mix of qualitative and quantitative data before, during and after the trial.
As the weeks went by, it became clearer that the trial was proving to have a positive impact on Perpetual Guardian’s personnel. While there was always a risk the reduced hours could lead to increased amounts of stress, Barnes recently told The New Zealand Herald that the exact opposite had occurred:
What we’ve seen is a massive increase in engagement and staff satisfaction about the work they do, a massive increase in staff intention to continue to work with the company and we’ve seen no drop in productivity.
The research was partly inspired by a company survey from 2017, in which only 54% of the company’s staff felt they were able to maintain a good work-life balance. By the end of the trial, that number had increased to 78%. A 7% decrease in employee stress levels was also observed after the eight-week experiment.
As far as team engagement goes, major improvements were seen when compared to the 2017 survey: leadership had gone up from 64% in 2017 to 82% post-trial; commitment rose from 68% to 88%; stimulation went from 66% to 84%; and empowerment saw an increase from 68% to 86%.
An employee at Perpetual Guardian told local news site Stuff.co.nz that the flexibility allowed her to improve her ability to focus on the things that matter most, both on and off the clock:
I found that in the trial I really made an effort to focus on one thing at a time … which meant that things were getting done. It’s really liberating in a sense, you always hear people talking about the struggle with full-time work, and full-time parenting, and you often end up feeling like you’re not doing a good job at either.
For Barnes, the trial isn’t about the amount of hours worked. He told the New Zealand Herald, that focus was first and foremost on productivity:
We’re making a clear distinction here between the amount of hours you spend in the office and what we get out of that.
Assessing productivity in the workplace, Barnes argues, can actually help companies like Perpetual Guardian close in on wider issues like gender inequality, especially when it comes to ensuring new parents are given fairer hours and salaries that are in line with their business contributions:
If you can have parents spending more time with their children, how is that a bad thing?
Barnes has already recommended to his board that the four-day work week should become a permanent company policy. He says it may take a little while to put it into practice, as the company needs to study how the initiative can be fitted into existing New Zealand employment laws:
Employment law is rightly about protecting the rights of workers and people are worried that if you start changing the dynamics of a working week that might lead to people having to do more in less time and that it could lead to job losses. We have to do a little bit of detailed work to ensure that we can comply with employment legislation when we bring this type of four-day week process into the mainstream and make it permanent.