Future of work

It looks like the 4-day week could really work for staff and businesses

- September 2, 2022 5 MIN READ
working mother at dining table with children
Photo: AdobeStock

It’s part of a growing trend, led by tech companies, of shortening the work week without a reduction in pay, with hopes of maintaining the same level of productivity.

And it’s picking up steam across the world.

The trial is being led by not-for-profit 4 Day Week Global, and is in partnership with researchers from the Auckland University of Technology, the University of Queensland, the University of Sydney, and Boston College.

It’s based on a simple equation: workers will receive 100 per cent of their pay for working only 80 per cent of their usual week but maintaining 100 per cent of their productivity.

Among the companies taking part is tech firm Our Community.

As part of the pilot, the vast bulk of Our Community staff will get Fridays off, with five team members working on Fridays but getting Mondays off, meaning all employees will have a three-day weekend.

“Everyone gets a long weekend to fully recharge with family, friends or companions, or isolate themselves from the world, whatever gives them the most pleasure,” Our Community founder Denis Moriarty said.

They will be receiving the same pay, and will be expected to have the same productivity across the reduced hours.

Moriarty said it’s been too long since there was any true innovation in work structure and schedule.

“It’s been 167 years since Australia led the world in moving to an eight-hour day,” Moriarty said.

“Bugger all in work schedules and innovation has occurred since then. Time is up on outdated work practices – we just have to innovate for our own survival.

“The four-day week is the most logical extension to an eight-hour day, and it’s simply just a no-brainer.

“The world has moved on and most importantly employees are looking for new ways to live and survive.

“Unless workplaces make the move, employees will and that is not good for business.”

The benefits

The four-day work week has been proven to be effective before.

Iceland has run the biggest global trial of the four-day work week in the world, running from 2015 to 2019.

Across this time, 2,500 public sector workers took part in the trial. It found that there was no drop in productivity amongst the participants, despite them working fewer hours, and a dramatic increase in employee wellbeing.

Researchers in the Iceland trial found that workers reported feeling less stressed and less at risk of burnout, with a corresponding increase to their health and work-life balance.

“The Icelandic shorter working week journey tells us that not only is it possible to work less in modern times, but that progressive change is possible too,” researcher Gudmundur Haraldsson said.

“Our roadmap to a shorter working week in the public sector should be of interest to anyone who wishes to see working hours reduced.”

A trial similar to the one currently in Australia was also recently launched in the United Kingdom, with thousands of workers starting the pilot in July.

It has seen 3,300 workers from 70 companies working a four-day week, with researchers measuring the impact of this on productivity, gender equality, the environment, and worker wellbeing.

This trial is now halfway through and there have been numerous reports of significant improvements to individuals’ wellbeing.

“Anecdotally, companies are suggesting there’s been an overwhelmingly positive experience with revenue and productivity levels, [that have] either maintained or, in some cases, improved,” 4 Day Week Global founder Charlotte Lockhard told BNN Bloomberg.

“Everything we’re finding so far is backing up what we’ve always said, which is interesting.

“But I think that the important thing with this research is that we will have empirical data that feeds into that.”

In New Zealand, a major study was conducted into trust company Perpetual Guardian’s shift to a four-day work week in early 2018.

The study found the trial increased productivity, customer engagement levels and staff engagement.

Perpetual Guardian has now moved to a permanent four-day work week.

Unilever also conducted a major trial of the shorter working week in New Zealand in 2020, allowing all its employees in the country to take part.

The shift towards a shorter working week has also focused on the impact this would make in combating climate change.

Research from last year commissioned by the 4 Day week campaign found that shifting to a four-day working week without loss of pay could reduce the United Kingdom’s carbon footprint by 127 million tonnes per year by 2025 – a reduction of 21.3 per cent.

Reducing working hours can lower carbon emissions through reductions in energy consumption, less commuting and lower household consumption.

The local experience

Other Australian tech companies have been embracing the four-day work week for several years, with great success.

Tech recruiting firm Lookahead shifted to a four-day work week for all employees in early 2020 due to the COVID pandemic.

Lookahead founder Steve Gilles said the company soon realised that this work structure should stay for good.

“Everyone on the team has loved it, and we just closed our best financial year ever,” Gilles said.

Gilles said that many employees are now actively looking for companies that offer flexible working hours, and this is comparable to those looking for remote work a decade ago.

“More often than not, it’s a senior engineer asking, as they know they can be picky,” he said. “This feels similar to many years ago when senior engineers started asking for fully remote roles.”

Sydney-based fintech InDebted moved to a four-day work week for all employees last year. The company has since found that 93 per cent of employees strongly agree or agree they know what they need to do to be successful in their role, a 6 per cent increase since the shift in work hours.

“We are concerned about our employees’ wellbeing, including their mental health, and believe that this initiative will be a massive benefit in this regard,” InDebted said at the time.

“Employee burnout is a real issue in many modern workplaces and we want to address it.”

InDebted founder and CEO Josh Foreman provided an update on the four-day work week shift in June this year.

The move has helped employees learn new ways to work smarter to deliver the same or better outcomes, he said.

“The most important thing is to keep your focus on employee happiness, productivity and autonomy,” he said.

“While a four-day work week is a great talent attraction initiative and will undoubtedly increase your number of job applications and drive hiring targets, it needs to work for your existing employees first and foremost before it can work for new hires to your business.”

Following the launch of the trial, InDebted received more job applications in the first 45 days compared to the preceding four and a half months.

The four-day work week can be implemented by giving all employees the same day off, or staggering days off to ensure there are always people working.

At Lookahead, all employees get Fridays off.

“Taking the same day off has been a very good thing for us,” Gilles said. “You’re never letting a colleague down because they’re off too.

“And clients don’t seem to mind – we are still contactable on Fridays in case something time-sensitive comes up.”

It’s important that companies shifting to a four-day work week are able to measure the effectiveness of doing this.

“We’re lucky because recruitment is quite measurable,” Gilles said. “Both quantity and quality of work is visible. You can see how many candidates are shipped to clients, how well they do in interviews, how many people we place and how well each match goes.”

At Our Community, the success of the trial will be measured in terms of staff retention, productivity, work outputs, employee satisfaction and profitability, while Moriarty will also track employee happiness and engagement.

“We want staff to get a better-balanced life, where people can enjoy a richer home and personal life, and also be happier and more productive with the time they have at the office,” he said.

“Less hours actually means better productivity – it sounds crazy but it’s also true.

“And the business gets happier and more productive employees.

“It is seen as highly innovative and the business is more profitable, as people are more productive.”