In the shake-up created by the global pandemic, debate about the plausibility of a four-day working week is growing louder.
It’s variously positioned as a salve for the economic havoc wreaked by COVID-19 and a means for employers to manage burnout and presenteeism in the workforce and help their employees achieve work/life balance. Governments in Japan, New Zealand, Scotland, Ireland, Finland, Iceland and Spain have been exploring the concept of the four-day week. And from the United Kingdom to the United States it’s been a lure for voters in pre-election political manifestos.
The conversation centres around a “compressed work week”, in which employees work longer hours over four days for the same pay, or a “working time reduction”, which allows people to work a shorter week – around 30 to 32 hours – with no loss of pay. The ACT government is on board with the idea, with an inquiry currently investigating whether a four-day week is the future of work in Australia.
Some Australian organisations are forging ahead. At professional services firm Deloitte Australia, new CEO Adam Powick was only weeks into the job in June when he announced a program that allows the company’s 10,000 employees and 900 partners to design their own working experience. Expectations shifted in 2020, explains Powick. While Deloitte already had a “flex” program prior to the pandemic, “I felt we had to take that to the next level and make a statement about how important flexibility and balance are now.”
It’s a radical move for a big firm, coming off the back of a tumultuous year that saw sizeable job and salary cuts followed by a swift acceleration in business.
“The talent market is now as tight as I’ve ever seen it in my career,” says Powick. “It’s important we make the work experience as attractive and engaging as possible.” The shift at Deloitte towards “individuals taking control of their own working lives” – whether it’s the location, the hours or days they work – has been well received, internally and externally by clients and the media.
Australia has been a quiet achiever in the drive towards the four-day week, notes human capital expert Rhonda BrightonHall, CEO of Sydney’s MWAH (Make Work Absolutely Human) consultancy. She points to trends in Australian Bureau of Statistics data over the past 15 years showing a greater number of people of both genders working part-time, along with rapid growth in portfolio careers (those with more than one employer), particularly among millennials, who tailor their working week to suit themselves.
Employers are bending to the trend, says Brighton-Hall, because giving staff greater freedom or “agency” over when, where and how they work “has become not just an important factor but a critical one when looking to hire”.
Better still, productivity gains are being reported. Brighton-Hall has been watching credible evidence appear in external research and her own experience, which includes stints at multinationals BHP, Commonwealth Bank and Luxottica.
“Giving people an extra day to manage their lives actually makes them more focused on the days they do work,” she says. “They become more productive.”
The proof is mounting. A boost to productivity was recently announced after a four-year Icelandic trial and also at Perpetual Guardian in New Zealand, where a company-wide pilot of a four-day week in 2018 was made permanent after its all-round success. Over the past four years at Versa, a global “conversational AI” agency based in Melbourne, its employees have worked slightly longer hours on four days and taken every Wednesday off.
Versa CEO Kath Blackham says the idea of turning what’s often called hump day into a rostered mental-health day was intended to promote staff wellbeing when the company initiated it in 2017. “It was about giving people time for themselves, to do life admin, spend time with their children, exercise, meditate, go surfing… whatever makes you happy.”
In a rapidly evolving industry where 50-hour working weeks and a churn-andburn culture prevail, Blackham was half expecting her business to financially flatline after making the change. Instead, she saw profitability leap by 40 per cent, productivity double, attrition rates fall by 20 per cent and clients happier due to the continuity in relationships. “In my wildest dreams, I never imagined that.”
Despite the pressures of opening a US office in Seattle and launching a joint venture in India immediately before the COVID-19 outbreak, the four-day practice continues at Versa. From the employee perspective, there’s no looking back for Adam Burnell, a director at Deloitte Digital who’s been working a four-day week for most of the past three years. He made the change following several months of paid parental leave, to share responsibilities with his partner and spend more time with his two children, now aged three and five.
Burnell says he’s much happier. “It’s a better lifestyle. Family is important to me.” He’s made the trade-off to work four days and be paid for four days but says his career hasn’t suffered despite the reduction in time. He’s managed to keep up performance metrics and maintain his career ambitions – he’s in his second year of Deloitte’s partner program. “I’m hoping I can be a partner four days a week.”
The firm has been highly supportive, even though Burnell doesn’t touch emails on Tuesdays (his chosen day off) or weekends. No-one calls him out of hours. Some of his workplace practices have changed – his meetings are usually 15 minutes long, not half an hour, and his conversations are more focused. “I’m working less and delivering as much.”
But a four-day week is unlikely to work economy-wide, says the Melbourne Institute’s Mark Wooden, director of the 20-year-old Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey project, one of Australia’s largest social-science research projects. “Receiving a full-time wage to work fewer hours is effectively a pay rise. It’s a privilege that can only be afforded to relatively few workers,” he argues.
The concept of compressing work into a shorter time frame – or working more efficiently – will not suit many industries, he says, pointing to retail, healthcare, child care and aged care, where a staff member must be physically present. “On a manufacturing production line, you can’t go any faster or slower. And it probably won’t work in call centres either.”
Even keen four-day-week proponents acknowledge it may be better suited to white-collar workplaces, while certain roles in businesses that adopt shorter weeks also face challenges. “It’s harder for our account service team, who are working directly with clients,” says Blackham. She expects staff in client-facing roles to be contactable on Wednesdays and, optimally, respond to clients within an hour.
“In person-to-person service businesses, any reduction in hours towards a four-day week will increase costs dramatically because others will need to be paid to do the work,” says Wooden. “Ultimately, businesses will need to increase prices and everyone will have to afford it.”
But if not universally straightforward, the four-day working week does play well with messaging around work/life balance, he concedes. And that’s had added impetus since 2019, when the World Health Organisation defined burnout in its 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases as an “occupational phenomenon”, putting the onus on employers to take action.
While the origins of the five-day week date back more than a century, the promise of automation and sophisticated technologies was that we’d have more leisure time. So why are we working so much? “All the productivity gains we’ve made over the past 60 years, including with computers and AI, have gone towards making companies wealthier, not employees,” says Blackham. “When I first presented [the four-day working week concept], the leadership team [of five] came back with a big fat ‘No’ because they believed we’d make more money working five days. So you have to take people on a bit of a journey.”
In a more intense working week, there are social considerations, such as the loss of workplace downtime – watercooler chats, relaxed lunches with colleagues, those collaborative corridor moments when ideas cross-pollinate. One reason Deloitte’s Adam Burnell strategically chose to take off Tuesdays instead of Fridays was because there’s more team interaction on the last day of the week. “You’d miss a lot from a culture perspective on Fridays.”
For the Deloitte Australia leadership team, moving ahead with giving people control over how they work comes down to a matter of trust. “Assume good,” says Powick. “We hire hardworking, committed individuals who won’t see this as a reason not to work but as a means to be more engaged in their work and their life.”
Success, he adds, depends on an unwavering leadership commitment to the shift, along with a strong coaching and mentoring process across the organisation.
“The key to this is to test and learn,” says Blackham. There’s a groundswell of interest from the private sector but she believes governments need to get serious and take the lead on exploring and creating policies towards gradually phasing in the four-day week.
Since Versa earned a place on Fast Company’s inaugural 50 Best Workplaces for Innovators in 2019, Blackham’s advice is frequently sought by leaders around the world. She tells them, “Don’t overthink it. Just try it.”