4 Day Week CEO on rethinking working hours: ‘At its heart, it's a conversation about productivity’

‘As employers, we need to remember that we borrow our people from their lives’

4 Day Week CEO on rethinking working hours: ‘At its heart, it's a conversation about productivity’

As Unilever announced its trial of a four-day working week, it prompted the question: Is an extended weekend the future of work?

For many, it simply seems too good to be true.

How can employers ask their workers to do the same amount of work – if not more – in less time?

HRD spoke to Charlotte Lockhart, CEO at 4 Day Week Global, the not-for-profit campaign which has worked with Unilever to roll out a reduced working arrangement trial to all 81 employees in the New Zealand office.

She said the concept of reduced hours working is not about doing more with less, but instead, reframing how employers think of work to truly get the best from their staff.

“As employers, we need to remember that we borrow our people from their lives,” she told HRD.

“Because work is part of our life, but it's not our life. When you focus on work like that, it puts it in its place.

“We remember that we need to be more generous with urging our people to be able to go home.”

Read more: Unilever NZ trials four-day week at full pay

While Unilever has made headlines for announcing the trial last week, NZ-based estate planning company Perpetual Guardian first trialled the new structure in 2018 after founder Andrew Barnes discovered research into the productivity benefits of a reduction in hours.

With 240 staff in 16 branches across New Zealand at that time, Perpetual Guardian decided to implement an eight-week trial and the results were overwhelmingly positive.

Employees were to work 30 hours and receive pay for 37.5, while aiming to produce the same output as a typical working week.

Researchers from the Auckland University of Technology came on board to measure the outcomes, both in terms of productivity and employee experience.

According to their findings, work/life balance jumped from 54% to 78% post trial and staff stress levels reduced by 7%.

Spurred by their own experience, Barnes and Lockhart created the 4-Day Week platform to fund research and help businesses like Unilever change the way they view productivity.

Lockhart said the most important factor for any business embarking on a similar trial is to enable employees to come up with their own productivity solutions.

“The innovation comes through true motivation,” she said. “If you say, I would like you to be more productive at work, all an employee hears is you want me to do more with less.

“But if you say to people, I want you to be more productive because I want to give you more time off, they go, let me find a way to make that happen.

“The key thing for HR professionals to remember is that this is not a problem that can be solved from the C-suite.

“If they want to get involved, their job is just to agree to a trial and let the employees do the problem solving.”

Read more: Flexible Work: from the new normal to the new necessary

Fighting the temptation to jump in allows employees to reassess their own workload and time management, finding innovative ways to cut out red tape and streamline processes.

“What leadership has to do is use encouraging words, sit on their hands and let the staff work it out - and they will,” she said.

“You have to have faith in your people so that at its heart, it's a conversation about productivity.”

At Perpetual Guardian, employees found their own ways to prioritise productivity, like designating a portion of time each day to “do not disturb” periods that allowed them to get work done without distractions.

Lockhart said by reassessing their own time management, and that of their team, workers also had more value for their colleagues’ time.

Meetings were slimmed down, and the organisers thought more carefully about who really needed to be there.

It also gave staff more autonomy to decline tasks which did not serve their productivity.

At two of the smallest branches in the South Island, the four employees across both offices had to ensure there was a representative available to talk to customers five days a week.

By diverting their office branches to one phone line, they increased the number of staff available at peak times, improving customer service, while also enabling them to reduce their individual hours.

Lockhart said this was an example of a solution that only came about when staff were presented with a problem to solve.

For HR professionals, Lockhart said they played an important role in supporting and enabling staff to manage their workload more successfully.

Like C-suites, their job is not to provide all the solutions but to support those employees struggling to manage reduced hours and pinpoint why.

Is their workload unmanageable? Is there anyone else who can be utilised to help?

Research is growing into the optimum length of a working day, with one UK study of 2,000 office workers putting the amount of time spent working at just two hours and 53 minutes per day.

While in Japan, a four-day work week trial by Microsoft saw employee productivity rise by 40%.

The benefits of a flexible work arrangement are abundant – increased job satisfaction, more downtime away from the pressures of work, more opportunity to pursue hobbies or to spend time with family.

It also serves as a powerful benefit for attracting new talent, particularly with young staff.

While the pandemic has given some employees a taste of flexibility through working from home, Lockhart said remote work can be a double-edged sword.

“We have to be very careful that flexible and remote working isn't the challis that reduced hour working is, because remote working leads to working as many hours and often, more hours,” she said.

“Many people have now swapped from working from home to sleeping at work.”

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