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Perpetual Guardian Experiments with a Four Day Work Week

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Earlier this year, Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand company that manages trust, wills and estates, invited its two hundred and forty employees to join an eight-week experiment during which they would work four days a week and enjoy an extra leisure day, although getting the same amount of money.

The trial, led by the company’s CEO and co-founder Andrew Barnes, sought to challenge the entire company in joining a discussion about the future of work and how increased flexibility and free time may impact employees’ productivity and company outcomes.

To ensure robustness of the process, they hired two academic researchers to prepare, conduct and analyse the results of the research.

Some of the key results shared by the research are:

  • Leaders reported that job performance remained at the same level
  • Staff stress levels were lowered from 45% to 38%
  • Work-life balance improved significantly, from 54% to 78%
  • Team engagement levels increased from an interval of 64%-68% to 82%-88% 

According to Barnes,

Our analysis of the results shows the objectives of the trial were successfully met. The key areas we sought to measure, including work-life balance, engagement, organisational commitment and work stimulation, all showed positive increases - that is a powerful combination that leads to job satisfaction

Christine Brotherton, head of people and capability of the company, mentioned that the research was also an opportunity for some unexpected findings. For instance, she observed a clear relationship between the empowerment given by managers to embrace the change and the staff motivation levels to succeed.

We have been able to identify deficiencies in leadership that perhaps we may not have had the opportunity to see if not for the trial,

From the researchers’ perspective, both quantitative and qualitative analyses have shown positive signs. Jarrod Haar, professor of human resource management at Auckland University of Technology, has looked into numbers related to job satisfaction, engagement and retention, and stated that:

Already high pre-trial, these significantly increased post-trial and the scores are easily the highest I have seen in my New Zealand data. In summary, employees reported enhanced job attitudes reflecting positive effects from the trial.

In correlation, Dr Helen Delaney, senior lecturer at the University of Auckland Business School, mentioned that due to the fact that employees were involved in the preparation and planning of the trials, they have expressed a sense of greater empowerment and as a result of that,

Employees designed a number of innovations and initiatives to work in a more productive and efficient manner, from automating manual processes to reducing or eliminating non-work-related internet usage.

As the subject gained attention from the business world, having been mentioned in places like The Guardian, CNBC or The New York Times, the company is inviting anyone who’s interested in participating in this discussion to join them on the four-day week website.

InfoQ spoke to Barnes in order to get more insights into how the idea was born, how it can be applied in other companies for instance in the professional software development industry, and what the plans and expectations for the near future are.

InfoQ: How did you come up with the idea of a four-day work week? Were there any specific triggers for that?

Andrew Barnes: I read a couple of articles in the Economist which indicated that true productive hours were less than 2.5 hours a day. This got me thinking as to the reasons for this. 1. Social… people spend time each day having coffee, talking to coworkers on social topics and also using social media. 2. Work interruptions, especially in open plan offices; the evidence suggests that if one is interrupted whilst working it can take 20+ minutes to get back to the same level of productivity. 3. Home and family, issues which crop up, e.g building work etc., which need to be dealt with during the working week. My thesis was if one gifted a day a week to staff, would this change these behaviours…and if so, we didn’t need a significant productivity gain each day to make up for the lost output.

InfoQ: In your opinion, what was the most unexpected result of the trial?

Barnes: People’s perception of their workload was less under the trial. I expected stress levels to drop and work-life balance to go up, but I didn’t expect that the staff would then view their workload to be more manageable over four days, rather than five.

InfoQ: InfoQ is a knowledge sharing and innovation community on professional software development. Do you see approaches like this working in this industry?

Barnes: I see no reason why not. The key is to ask team members how they want the approach to be adopted, and to give them ownership of the methods by which it is introduced and monitored.

InfoQ: If someone wants to try it out, does it need to be applied to the entire company or do you see it as feasible considering only some areas of the company, or even only a couple of teams?

Barnes: My suggestion is to try it out whichever way works for you. At least one of our teams opted out of the trial. The key thing is to demonstrate that it works and to apply the learnings to the whole business.

InfoQ: You’ve been noticed on several news websites. Do you have any concrete plans for the near future?

Barnes: This is now a bit of a movement, and given the international and domestic reaction to our trial, I am keen to ensure that the conversation regarding more flexible working is continued. But the first thing is to implement the four-day week permanently in our company; we are just working through the legal terms now.

InfoQ: When we hear you speaking about your vision, it resonates as much bigger than changing the way your company and employees behave. May I ask what would make you happy in three years?

Barnes: To see this, or variants of this adopted in New Zealand and globally. There has to be a better way.

 

Besides the work being done in his company, Barnes is challenging other leaders to think differently too. The following are examples of recent quotes of his:

If you can have parents spending more time with their children, how is that a bad thing? Are you likely to get better educational outputs as a consequence?

Are you likely to get fewer mental health issues when you have more time to take care of yourself and your personal interests -probably. If you can take 20 percent of people off the roads every day, what does that mean?

I am therefore challenging all other CEOs out there - start your own trial.

Your worst-case scenario is that you will gain a more engaged, committed and energized workforce.

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Community comments

  • Hawthorne effect

    by Javier Paniza /

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    If they known that they were observed, the experiment value is flaw. Did you hear about Hawthorne effect?

  • Re: Hawthorne effect

    by Daniel Bryant /

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    An interesting point Javier, although the reporting does mention that one group opted out of the trials, and therefore I wonder if this was the control group?

  • Re: Hawthorne effect

    by Roland Heimdahl /

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    It is one experiment and will of course need many more before any hard conculsions can be drawn. But it questions if the 40 hour, 5 day workweek have solid proof of being the optimal way of doing things. And maybe the truth is more individual, person A works at its optimum at 60 hours over 3 days and another at 20 over 5?

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