Christine Brotherton: Should employers encourage a four-day week to increase productivity?

Christine Brotherton

It was a world first when Perpetual Guardian announced in February 2018 that we were undertaking an organisation-wide trial, whereby all staff would be asked to do 100% of their work, for 100% of their normal pay, but only over 80% of the standard work week; that is, if they could maintain their usual productivity and output levels over four standard days, they could have a paid day off each week.

The initial announcement of our eight-week trial, the idea for which was conceived by our founder, entrepreneur Andrew Barnes, sparked worldwide interest for its boldness and radicalism. As far as we could ascertain, no other organisation in the world had ever attempted to motivate or engage employees, or invest in their wellness and productivity, using these parameters.

The objective of the trial was simply to see what happened: whether our 240 people were happier in their work, more balanced in their lives, more connected with the business, and equally or more productive when they were at their desks.

We ran the trial over March and April, and commissioned two leading researchers, one from the Auckland University of Technology (AUT) and the other from the University of Auckland School of Business, to measure separately, by qualitative and quantitative means, how staff experienced the trial and the effect it had on their professional and personal lives as well as their attitude and wellbeing.

It was important that the trial be led by staff and not imposed by management, so staff were asked to plan within their teams as to how they would continue to complete their work, meet their targets and serve clients with a 20% daily reduction in ‘boots on the ground’.

In practice, the trial worked extremely well, in part because lines of communication were open throughout and everyone was encouraged to speak up and report to team leaders and managers if they had a question.

In brief, the results were spectacular: the researchers measured a reduction in stress levels from 45% to 38%, and an improvement in work-life balance from 54% to 78% by the end of the trial.

We found that people were more engaged and just as productive in four days as they had been in five. We are now reviewing at board level how this increased flexibility can be imposed permanently. Meanwhile, we are delighted to have started a positive national and global conversation and promoted a healthy cultural shift within our own business.

Christine Brotherton is head of people and capability at Perpetual Guardian