The Four-Day Work Week Gains Momentum
In October, BRINK reported on the start of a large trial involving multiple companies in the U.K. that had agreed to trial a four-day working week.
In the meantime, a smaller trial has just ended in the U.S. BRINK spoke to Joe O’Connor, about the results.
O’CONNOR: The message from the companies that have participated in these trials has been overwhelmingly positive. The trial paints a picture of huge success in terms of being able to maintain and, in some cases, even improve productivity. It also paints a picture of employee outcomes improving in a statistically significant way across a wide range of different well-being indicators.
This is something that clearly makes a huge difference in terms of how employees view their organization. We have some very powerful data and statistics from employees who have been part of this four-day week experiment.
We’ve always advocated that this concept is not about doing the same work harder and faster in less time, but about rethinking and reorganizing and redesigning the way that you work to achieve the same output with fewer — or more efficient — inputs.
One question that was asked of them was: What would it take for you to give that up and to move to another organization on a five-day week schedule? And the results were really quite striking. We had a high number of respondents saying that it would require a very significant salary increase in the order of 17% to 50% for them to make that switch, and we had another 13% saying that they would not go back to a five day schedule for any level of compensatory increase.
Not About Just Working Harder
There’s always been a counterpoint argument that the risk of a shorter work week transition is that it leads to work intensification. We’ve always advocated that this concept is not about doing the same work harder and faster in less time, but about rethinking and reorganizing and redesigning the way that you work to achieve the same output with fewer — or more efficient — inputs.
The research team reported that companies’ efforts to reorganize work were successful in eliciting productivity without a speed up. So in other words, people didn’t feel that they were working harder or faster or more intensively in order to achieve the productivity gains.
Moving Away From the Old-School Model of Long Hours
And that’s led to a whole range of other improvements. We’ve seen stress going down, burnout down, fatigue down. We’ve seen work-life balance, life satisfaction and mental health all improving. There’s also been increases in terms of people’s self-reported physical health, the frequency and the length of time that they’re spending exercising each week, so there would potentially be significant cost reduction benefits associated with health care if we’re successful in reducing work time across the economy.
BRINK: For employers, it’s obviously a shift to suddenly have to change working patterns and working teams. How does a company go about shifting from a five day to a four day?
O’CONNOR: It’s really about shifting away from that old-school model where working long hours is some kind of badge of honor and really honing in on: What are the drivers of real results? What are the things that really move the needle?
The companies that succeed at this are those who manage to clearly define metrics and targets and objectives that are then communicated and understood at a team and at a department level. Employees are incentivized to meet those goals because they have quite a transformative benefit of having this additional time back for family, for caring, for new skills, hobbies, interests and so forth.
Too Many Meetings
It’s important to look at things like meetings, where many companies have too many meetings that are unnecessary, too many meetings that go on for too long, too many meetings that involve people that don’t necessarily need to be there.
You have companies that get much better at eliminating needless or unnecessary distractions and interruptions during the work week, that knock people off their flow state when they’re actually honing in and focused on really important work.
We’ve had CEOs describe this as the cheapest process improvement strategy that they’ve ever deployed and also the best team-building initiative that they’ve ever deployed because people are really thrown in at the deep end together to make this work with a really outstanding prize at the end of it if they can.
BRINK: What are the barriers to scaling this? It would be a lot easier to do in a company of 200 than a company of 20,000.
O’CONNOR: We’ve launched a new initiative called the Center of Excellence for Work Time Reduction to help with this issue of scaling. When you’re talking about an organization with lots of different complexity in terms of their functional departments, what a shorter work week or what work time reduction might look like could vary quite widely between different locations, different functional groups.
The complexity of designing that trial or designing that experiment or designing that kind of organizational transformation is going to be more complex, and it’s going to take more time. These are the kinds of organizations that we’re keen to work with, where they require a much more bespoke, specialized, tailored approach.
BRINK: Have you found that the recession has made employers more nervous about implementing this?
O’CONNOR: We aren’t noticing any kind of immediate downturn in interest, but it’s difficult to assess or to judge how much of an impact it’s making. The times we see companies defer or put off making this change is often due to a big change in the organization, external factors, a financial crisis, a policy change, a leadership change.
We could see a situation where, if the external financial picture gets cloudier, it might cause companies to pause and to hold off for a period of time. But I have no doubt that a point in time is coming where not offering a shorter working week in certain industries like tech will be a competitive disadvantage, and I think the biggest question is how quickly we get there.