This spring, a New Zealand company tried a new experiment: Employees could work four standard days instead of five, but would be paid their usual salary. Newly released numbers from a study of the project, which lasted eight weeks, show that it worked. Workers’ sense of work-life balance went from 54% to 78%. Stress went down. And the missed hours didn’t affect job performance, which actually slightly improved.
The head of the company, a trust and estate planning firm called Perpetual Guardian, was inspired to make the change after reading about research showing that the average British employee is productive only 2.5 hours a day. “I thought, well, that’s interesting,” says CEO Andrew Barnes. “If I gave people a day off a week to do all the other stuff that got in the way–all the little problems that you might have outside of work–would you then get better productivity in the office in the four days when people worked?”
When he announced the plan to his employees, he asked them to brainstorm how to keep their own productivity as high as it had been before as their hours changed to get Wednesdays or Fridays off. With the incentive of time off, they got creative. “Often there are lots of small inefficiencies which never get addressed in a company because they are just really too small for someone to focus their time on,” he says. “Now, because there was a prize–namely to have a day off–all of those little things got addressed or got identified.”
Employees spent less time in meetings. They spent less time on social media. They started experimenting with signals on their desks–like a flag in a small pot next to their computer–to indicate to coworkers when they shouldn’t be interrupted. (Studies have found that it can take more than 20 minutes to get focused after an interruption.) Because there were fewer people in the office, noise and distractions went down. And despite the fact that the staff was spending 20% less time in the office, productivity didn’t fall.
“The supervisors actually seemed to be somewhat surprised to say well, they did actually manage to do all of their work,” says Jarrod Harr, a professor of human resource management at Auckland University of Technology, who surveyed employees before and after the trial. A second researcher, Helen Delaney, a senior lecturer at the University of Auckland Business School, performed qualitative research at the company.
Job satisfaction, though fairly high before the experiment, ticked upward, as did employees’ sense of satisfaction with their lives in general. Perception of workload went down. Job stress declined from 45% to 38%. Employees’ sense of engagement with their work went up, and their commitment to their employer rose from 68% to 88%. They found their work more stimulating, had more confidence in the leadership team, and felt more empowered in their roles.
The company is now moving forward to implement the change permanently, though it has to sort through some bureaucratic issues–like the fact that under New Zealand law, workers accrue vacation time based on time spent in the office. “You’ve got to make the legislation more flexible because it doesn’t really contemplate different methods of working,” says Barnes, who is now in conversation with New Zealand legislators.
But he believes it’s something that companies widely should adopt. Stress-related mental health issues are common, and the experiment showed that stress went down. When a new mother negotiates a shorter work week, in most jobs now, “she gets paid 20% less,” he says. “Why? This is about productivity. Negotiate on productivity–hours are irrelevant.”
If more companies did the same thing, it could have broader impacts. “If you take 20% percent of cars off the road on any day that’s got pollution implications,” says Barnes. “It’s got congestion implications, it’s got design implications for cities.” The extra day could be used for education. “You need to re-educate your workforce because AI may be coming in in the future and jobs that are good now may well be overtaken in a few years. This gives a day off for someone to study and retrain.”
Companies that want to follow this example need to plan, he says. Employees have to be empowered to find new ways to do their work. And companies will likely have to deal with skepticism. “I own the business so I can say look, stuff it, I’m going to do it,” he says. “But your leadership team is conditioned to think that you’ve got to spend five days in the office, so you’ve got to make sure that your leaders actually understand what you’re trying to do. Because if you get inadequate leadership through the process, it will fail as well.”
Harr, the human resources professor, says that a four-day week would be difficult where employees are already overworked. “If you’re in a company where you’re doing the work of two people, trying to do that in four days rather than five is just going to be impossible.” But he says it’s worth testing, as Barnes did. “I think it’s something that can work in a lot of office jobs.”