How This Company Established a Four-Day Work Week — and Says Others Can Too

March 6, 2019

Perpetual Guardian manages trusts, wills, and estates. But one of the New Zealand–based company’s most noteworthy “products” of late just might be the four-day work week.

Last March and April, the firm ran an eight-week trial in which it paid everyone on its staff for five days a week but only asked them to work four. Perpetual Guardian brought in two university researchers to study and measure productivity and employee response. The company saw no drop-off in productivity and a stunning 40% jump in employee engagement. At the beginning of November, Perpetual Guardian adopted a four-day, 30-hour week as its standard.

And now the Auckland firm has gone from pioneer to champion: It released an exhaustive white paper two weeks ago that delivers a detailed blueprint for other companies that might be considering a shake-up of the traditional work week.

The Kiwi crew is right on trend: When LinkedIn surveyed 5,000 talent and HR professionals last fall, they tabbed work flexibility as one of the top four trends that will impact talent acquisition this year. Our recently published Global Talent Trends 2019 cites a 78% increase since 2016 in the number of job postings on LinkedIn that mention flexibility.

And given that 31% of LinkedIn members say flexibility would be a “very important” consideration when looking for a new job, a redesigned work week could be a powerful tool to attract talent.

Near the end of its report, Perpetual Guardian offers 15 pointers for companies that want to experiment with new work schedules. Here are four of the most critical tactics:

1. Be very clear about why you’re making the change

Andrew Barnes, the founder of Perpetual Guardian, decided to experiment with a shortened work week after reading a report that said the average worker spends only two hours and 53 minutes of their workday productively. He wanted employees to be able to focus on work when they were in the office and use an extra day off to address commitments in their personal lives — or however else they chose.

Your company’s reasons for considering a change might be different, but it’s imperative that you understand and articulate what your drivers are. “Do you want to increase engagement and productivity,” the report asks, “reduce absenteeism and presenteeism [working while sick], increase retention, attract quality employees and boost staff motivation, achieve better overall organisation ‘health’ and culture, increase revenue? If objectives are laid out at the start, success and milestones can be measured accurately.”

The white paper stresses the importance of both the company and its workforce understanding why they’re making changes to the work week. The redesign should be about stakeholders — employees, customers, investors — rather than TV or newspaper audiences.

2. Enlist your workforce to brainstorm goals and process changes

Perpetual Guardian’s eight-week experiment in 2018 underscored the absolute importance of enlisting front-line employees in the hunt for more productive ways to work. “When energized and excited and empowered,” the reports says, “employees can come up with some truly great ideas relating to business process improvement.”

“One of the most pleasing parts of the trial,” writes Christine Brotherton, head of people and capability for Perpetual Guardian, “was that it did indeed kick off a conversation about productivity and almost immediately had teams thinking consciously about what they were doing and how they were doing it.”

For example, employees at Perpetual Guardian suggested cutting meetings in half — from 60 minutes to 30 — and measuring the output. They did — and nothing was lost. They also began using agendas for all their meetings and automating some processes that had been done manually.

But engaging employees in setting goals and proposing process changes does a lot more than simply create time efficiencies. Helen Delaney, a senior lecturer at the University of Auckland Business School who studied Perpetual Guardian’s experiment, notes that it also “created more collaborative social relationships” between employees who felt a fresh need to share their work and make sure they had their colleagues’ backs.

Christine says a flex program is not likely to work as a top-down decree. “The success of our trial,” she writes, “came from empowering staff to come to their own decisions and to trust them to make the right call with regards to their customers and team members.”

3. Begin with a trial — and use outside consultants to evaluate your success

If your company is considering experimenting with flexible work arrangements, there are some simple reasons for sticking a toe in the water before taking the plunge. A trial, the white paper says, “allows potential kinks in a flexibility policy to be ironed out while not committing the company to expensive or lengthy legal work up front.”

Bringing in outside consultants to evaluate your experiment shows your workforce you’re serious about change — and about results. Your team of evaluators also may unearth benefits to your changes that you weren’t even considering. For example, Christine says, “While it didn’t come as a surprise that people felt good about having an extra day off per week, we certainly weren’t expecting the extremely positive results we received from both our quantitative surveying and also the qualitative surveying of the focus groups.”

4. Make sure your flexible work policy is, well, flexible

If you’re setting out to reinvent how your team works, be open-minded about what that might look like. Flexibility will ensure that your business, customer, and employee needs have the best chance of being met.

For example, if you commit to giving everyone a third day off each week, don’t force everyone to take off on Friday. Your customers aren’t taking off Fridays, right? At Perpetual Guardian, some employees take Monday off, some take Friday off, and others take a day in the middle of the week to recharge their batteries. Still others chose to work five days a week but work six hours a day, instead of 7 ½.

The leadership at Perpetual Guardian also made it clear that there are likely to be times, such as the end-of-the-year financial reporting period, when business needs will require employees to work a five-day week.

“Avoid being too prescriptive,” the report advises, “instead aim to build practical guides according to a governing philosophy and intent.”

Final thoughts: Treat your employees like grown-ups and they’ll act like grown-ups

The leadership at Perpetual Guardian has thought long about the short work week. The white paper runs 49 pages and links to or cites numerous other studies done on the issue. The report considers the issue from the perspectives of the company, employees, customers, and broader Auckland community. In the firm’s analysis, everyone comes out ahead.

If the report has a single thread woven through it, it might be this: Treat employees like grown-ups and nearly anything is possible.

“What we’ve seen,” writes Tammy Barker, a branch manager for Perpetual Guardian, “is that if you bring people in from the beginning, you’re going to get better buy-in and a lot less ‘us and them’ with everyone working together as a team. We’ve been treated like adults and I think as a result everyone is behaving like adults and is prepared to overcome any challenges that might occur.”

Photo by Simon Rae on Unsplash

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