COVID-19 has upended the way we think about our jobs, sparking conversations around how, when and where we work. The mass remote working experiment has forced leaders to acknowledge its benefits as they mull its long-term uptake beyond times of the pandemic. One idea to come out of the flexible working debate – a radical one in the eyes of some – is that of the four-day work week.
As a matter of fact, the ‘standard’ working week in New Zealand and in many countries across the world was once longer than five days, and still is in some countries. Historical reasons behind its shortening vary across geographies – but the shrinking of the New Zealand working week to 40 hours happened in the 1930s for most factory and workshop workers, when the government reasoned a shorter working week would increase employment opportunities in a time of economic depression. When we consider this history and the current economic climate, the notion of a four-day working week seems less absurd.
Indeed, proponents of the four-day work week are numerous. Prime Minister Jacinda Ahern encouraged its uptake as a way of boosting tourism and addressing work/life balance issues. In 2018, Kiwi Trust company Perpetual Guardian made the four-day work week permanent after a successful trial, finding it boosted productivity among its staff by 20%. Further, as more companies look at adopting longer-term remote working policies beyond times of COVID-19, the absence of daily commutes could make the four-day work week even more feasible.
When examining the success of the four-day week as a workable model, it’s important to make the distinction between its two forms: the ‘compressed’ format, whereby employees complete full-time hours over a four-day week instead of five; and the four-day week, in which workers complete around 30 hours over four days. According to sociologist Karen Foster, author of Productivity and Prosperity: A Historical Sociology of Productivist Thought, the ‘compressed’ schedule is not to be confused with the ‘true’ four-day week. For the purposes of this blog post, we will explore how to make the latter work.
The thirty-hour four-day week would not work for every single company, nor for every individual. Here, we discuss five things HR leaders should ensure for a successful model.
- Increased focus on productivity
While we’d expect to have to work at an almost superhuman speed in order to achieve the same workload in less time, the arguments in favour of the ‘true’ four-day week point to the longer days themselves being the culprit of decreased productivity. Indeed, in a six-hour workday experiment conducted within a team at Collective Campus – an innovation accelerator based in Melbourne – the shorter workday forced the team to prioritise effectively, limit interruptions, and operate at a much more deliberate level for the first few hours of the day. The team maintained, and in some cases increased, its quantity and quality of work, with subjects reporting improved feelings of wellbeing.
But while research points to increased productivity in a shorter workday, it remains critical to emphasise its importance to employees when shifting to a four-day week. You don’t want employees to adjust to the ‘new normal’ of a four-day week, only to become complacent and achieve three days’ worth of work instead of four. Clear goal setting is therefore key, as are regular progress check-ins.
Employees should also be encouraged to remove distractions. In the case of Perpetual Guardian, the switch to the four-day week meant staff were required to keep mobile phones in lockers, while eating food and having meetings at desks was discouraged so as not to distract fellow employees. Limiting distractions is of course easier in a physical office setting than in a distributed one, where employees might have to contend with children, housemates, or pets in their home. In a remote working four-day week, regular check-ins and progress updates are even more essential. Organisations should be equipped with adequate technology such as online project management tools, reliable video conferencing, and a culture that fosters regular virtual check-ins.
It may be that the four-day week is not favourable for all employees. Everyone works differently, so it’s important for employees to be given the option of a working a five-day week if that better suits them. With this being said, presenteeism – when employees come in to look good in front of the boss, rather than there being a genuine need for their presence; or E-presenteeism, where employees feel they should be online even outside of working hours – should be discouraged, with managers promoting as much time in the office as is needed to complete work.
- Solid KPIs
Setting clear goals using OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) and KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) in the four-day work week is critical. OKRs form part of a goal-setting framework that helps organisations define their top strategic priorities, breaking down strategy and execution into two components: objectives and key results; while KPIs are the metric by which goal achievement is measured. Input versus output is a key principle here – which means that performance should be evaluated by what is achieved, rather than hours spent achieving it. Managers should clearly outline what’s expected of employees throughout their four-day week and track their progress using tools such as online task management platforms.
Employees should also be given time to think about their own measures of productivity; this is especially true for roles whose performance cannot be measured by outcome.
- A culture of effective meetings
Long and unproductive meetings are a common office gripe. They are draining and sap morale. Yet research shows that meetings have increased in length and frequency over the past 50 years, with executives spending an average of nearly 23 hours a week in them, up from less than 10 hours in the 1960s. A Harvard Business Review study showed that engagement typically decreases the more time people spend in very large group settings, further strengthening the case for shorter meetings.
Ensuring meetings are productive in a shortened week becomes even more important. An effective meeting culture will keep these gatherings to no longer than 30 minutes; and each meeting will come with a clear agenda and objectives.
- Retaining strong employee engagement and training & development opportunities
The absence of Fridays should not mean the loss of end-of-week rituals. Employees will be spending less time in the workplace – whether this is a virtual, physical or hybrid one – so employee engagement becomes even more critical. After all, companies with a high level of engagement report 21% higher productivity according to Gallup data. Ensuring regular ‘Pulse’-type surveys to stay attuned to employee sentiment will help maintain a regular employer/employee dialogue.
Equally as important is the maintenance of learning and development opportunities in a four-day week – an initiative that is often sidelined when push comes to shove. It’s important to not let this slide, for the value of learning and development opportunities is undeniable: it boosts engagement, loyalty, productivity and in turn, profit. Research has shown that 94% of employees would stay at a company longer if it invested in their professional development, and that employers offering comprehensive training programs enjoy a 24% higher profit than those who spend less on training.
- Automation of processes
The automation of processes applies to all business divisions and roles, but there are some business areas that are more admin-heavy than others. HR is one such area. Freeing up time by automating processes will see to it that the ‘essential’ work gets done within four days. This includes essential HR functions such as payroll, onboarding, and training & development. With the latter two, offering these via tools such as eLearning is both cost-effective and often preferred by employees, so is a great way of ensuring professional development opportunities continue to exist in a shorter work week.
Similarly, speeding up payroll processes through automation will claw back time spent collating information from several legacy systems and having to manually input payroll data – making the process quick, transparent and compliant.
Despite the many arguments in favour of the four-day week, its universal uptake is probably a long way off. It remains to be seen how and in what format it would be implemented in New Zealand were it to become a reality. But the current public debate, coupled with the historical trend of a shortening work week, lends weight to the idea that since COVID-19 has shaken up so many aspects of working life, the four-day model is certainly not beyond the realms of possibility.
ELMO Cloud HR & Payroll can help HR professionals manage their workforce, even while operating remotely. As a cloud-based solution, ELMO helps employers manage their teams from anywhere at any time from a secure, centralised location. All employee-employer touchpoints are covered by ELMO’s suite, from ‘hire to retire’. This includes recruitment and onboarding, learning & development, performance management, payroll, rostering / time & attendance, and more. For further information on any ELMO solution, please contact us.
The Science Fiction of Meetings MIT Sloan Management Review · December 2007
 LinkedIn’s 2019 Workforce Learning Report
 Association for Talent and Development