What if we worked just four days a week?

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A New Zealand estate planning firm adopted a shorter workweek yet paid everyone the same. Could that experiment inform post-pandemic workplaces? (YummyBuum/Bigstock)

A New Zealand estate planning firm adopted a shorter workweek yet paid everyone the same. Could that experiment inform post-pandemic workplaces? (YummyBuum/Bigstock)

This story is from The Pulse, a weekly health and science podcast.

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Andrew Barnes stood before an assembly of his employees and told them that, starting in about a month, everyone would work only four days a week instead of five. He’d keep on paying all of them their full salaries, and they’d keep all their benefits,

Cue the balloon drop and the confetti cannons, right?

“You can see the original announcement, which somebody recorded. The initial response was not rapturous applause,” Barnes said. “It was shock and followed by nervous laughter, because what was the catch? There had to be a catch.”

This was in 2018, before the pandemic upended the meaning of work for millions. And Barnes’ New Zealand company, Perpetual Guardian, wasn’t some plucky new startup out to disrupt things.

“The two principal units of my business had been around since the 1880s,” Barnes said. “We are very much old school — trust companies are very staid, dull, boring, dependable businesses.”

Estate planning is basically synonymous with stability, continuity, doing things the way they’ve always been done. Barnes’ colleagues were skeptical of his plan, to say the least.

“Broadly, every single person on my board, every single member of the leadership team, all thought it was not going to work, and that I was mad,” Barnes said.

But very conveniently, he owned a good chunk of the company. “So I said, ‘Well, we’re going to do it anyway,” Barnes said.

And they did. Being a company founder has its perks.

“There was almost no pre-planning, other than me announcing it to the staff one day and saying, ‘Right in a month’s time, we’re going to try this, over to you. How are you going to make it work?’”

The company-wide experiment all started because of a magazine Barnes had read on a flight the previous Christmas.

“I’d read a couple of articles in the U.K. Economist magazine that indicated that the level of productivity, true productivity, in a working day was about three hours,” he said. “And what I was trying to work out was why that would be the case. And in fact, what’s actually happening in my business.”

There wasn’t some kind of altruism driving this, or a desire to improve the lives of his workers. It was pure curiosity about something Barnes happened to be in a position to explore.

“If you are only truly productive for three hours a day, you only have to get 45 minutes of additional productivity in each of the four days to make up for that fifth day. And so that was how it started,” Barnes said

It made sense, the back-of-the-envelope math, but that didn’t mean it would work in the real world. And it had to work — founder or not, Barnes isn’t exactly Willy Wonka, the bottom line was first and foremost on his mind.

“At the end of the day, I had private capital shareholders,” Barnes said. “If I can’t demonstrate that this is delivering at least the same level of productivity, it’s a policy that’s not going to last very long.”

Andrew Barnes is founder of Perpetual Garden, a New Zealand estate planning firm that adopted a shorter workweek — yet paid everyone the same. (courtesy of Andrew Barnes)

Perpetual Guardian put out a press release announcing its plans.

It caught the eye of Jarrod Harr, a professor of human resource management at Auckland University of Technology. He saw an opportunity to do research and asked whether anyone was doing a proper study at Perpetual Guardian.

“They were like, `No, we’re not. We wish we were. Are you interested?’” Harr said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, for sure.’  I think it was about eight or 10 days before they started.”

That’s skin-of-your-teeth short notice in the world of academia.

“So ironically, I worked every day and night for about seven or eight days because I had to get my paperwork done and get ethics done and ticked off,” Harr said.

The type of worker at Perpetual Guardian is precisely the kind that lends itself to something like this quite easily, Harr said: the knowledge worker.

Knowledge workers, found in a lot of white-collar occupations, have great flexibility in terms of how they actually do their jobs, as opposed to, say, a nurse or a barber who physically deals with other people in one designated place, or someone who works in a place that makes things.

“For example, if I had a factory and I ran a conveyor belt of widgets or whatever, and workers are on there, can I actually make them do 20% more work a day? Maybe not,” Harr said.

The flexibility of the knowledge worker was important, because Barnes didn’t actually tell anyone how to maintain the same level of productivity while working one day less. He just told them to figure it out for themselves. They knew their jobs better than he did, right?

Turns out they did.

Five days become four

Meetings magically shrunk or disappeared all together. Social media use plummeted.

Some workers started using a quiet flag — you put it up at the edge of your desk, and no one breaks your flow to ask about your weekend plans.

Middle managers, who Harr found were the most apprehensive, were surprised when productivity didn’t take a hit and things like customer satisfaction actually improved.

The little bits of added efficiency added up, they worked. Key to all this, Harr said, was that efficiency was actually, finally incentivized.

Think about it: In a regular office, your reward for finishing your work early is pretending to work until you can leave. What if you could just leave?

“That’s why this works, right?” Barnes said. “It’s that we are giving people an employee benefit you can’t buy and an employee benefit you can’t value. It’s beyond value, because we are giving you the gift of time.”

His plan was working in a “dollar and cents, keep the shareholders happy” kind of way, that was clear from the metrics Harr kept and the feedback from customers.

Barnes knew it was working in a deeper, unexpected way when he started hearing the stories, one by one, trickling in from employees.

“One of my staff was a grandfather, and he would take two afternoons off a week and he would walk home, and then he would spend his afternoon with his granddaughter and they would have tea together,” Barnes said. “And then she would be picked up by his daughter and go home. And when he told the story, he would cry.”

Another employee would talk about surprising his daughter during recess, the way she’d sprint the length of the playground into a leaping hug, bewildered by the sight of dad in the middle of the day.

“You think you can pry that guy out of my company now?” Barnes said.

Good luck with bringing your dog to work, or the free espresso machine. What’s more precious than what Barnes was offering at Perpetual Guardian? He was paying employees cold hard New Zealand dollars, but he was also paying them in time —  priceless, irreplaceable time.

 

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Now, that’s not to say everyone was a fan of this new scheme. There were employees who actually wanted to go back to five days a week — only 3% of them.

Harr thinks maybe those workers didn’t yet have families, or didn’t have robust social circles. Work life was their social life.

But still, look at the breakdown: 3% against, 97% for. People loved it, overwhelmingly so.

“That’s why bizarrely, when we did it, we did the trial and then we went back to five days, just to remind everybody how seriously shit it was, before we went back to the four-day week,” Barnes said.

As in: Remember that clock-watching drudgery? We can go back to that if you mess around.

Perpetual Guardian still has a four day work week, but when you first start working there it’s five days a week as a kind of reminder.

“Part of it is to reinforce when they go to four days, what this is worth, how valuable this is, and how unusual at the moment it is,” Barnes said.

The whole experience, Barnes said, taught him that managers, especially in knowledge work, are thinking of productivity in the wrong way. Their employees don’t make clothing or cars, stuff that’s easy to count to figure out how productive they are being. They don’t physically make anything at all.

Time, hours spent sitting at a desk, could be counted, and so that somehow got stuck as the measure of productivity, he thinks. And Barnes thinks what happened with Perpetual Guardian proves it was a bad metric all along.

What’s holding the rest of us back?

 

Anna Coote, head of social policy at the New Economics Foundation in London, points to John Maynard Keynes — the biggest British economic mind of the 1900s — to explain.

“He predicted that by the 21st century, people would not have to work for more than 15 hours a week,” Coote said. “And so he thought that challenge to us all would be how could we best use our leisure time?”

The thing about Keynes was his predictions were very right, very often. For example, some historians credit him with predicting World War II after he analyzed the punishing economic terms imposed on Germany by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles.

Kudos on that one, but that 15-hour workweek he predicted …

“Well, why was he so spectacularly wrong about that — when he’d been right about a great many other things?” Coote asked.

It’s pretty simple, she said: Productivity shot up, while worker pay did not. We can make and do more things faster, but our paychecks don’t budge as a result.

Coote and her colleagues have been advocating for a shorter workweek for over a decade. In 2010, she made the case for a 21-hour workweek.

“There was an awful lot of interest, particularly actually on radio programs,” Coote said. “And I discovered that this is because an awful lot of people who worked in radio were women, and women often had kids at home and were struggling with what you call a work-life balance.”

Coote thinks a shorter workweek can solve all manner of human societal problems. There’s the gender lifetime earnings gap tied to motherhood, but also consumerism-driven problems such as climate change.

“It’s a sustainable economy, as one that stays within planetary boundaries, that doesn’t use natural resources that can’t be replaced. And that doesn’t, that emits fewer and fewer carbon emissions, so that we can actually survive as a civilization and have an economy at all,” Coote said.

Her colleagues advocate an economy that does not measure its success by growth, but by human well-being. It’s an economy that would require fewer workers, or would require the same number of workers, working less.

Tough to imagine both parts of that: a company willingly hiring more employees than they need; a politician promising no growth, GDP is staying right where it is.

It all seems kind of far-fetched, but maybe in the same way working from home once seemed far-fetched. Coote said what she’s talking about — working less and living better — it’s all happened before. Our working hours have become, as she put it, more civilized over time.

“When you think that it used to be normal for people to work a 12-hour day and children to work in the mines,” she said, “you can see how you could regard human progress as measured by the amount of hours that people work every day.”

 

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