27 September 2023

Time to change: Why four-day working weeks are on the agenda

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Killian Plastow* says four-day working weeks can provide as many benefits for employers as for employees, so will they one day become the norm?

Unlimited paid leave. Permanent long weekends.

Is this the future of working life in Australia?

Once the post-lunch daydream of overworked office drones nationwide, shorter weeks and unrestricted annual leave are slowly finding their way into contracts around Australia — much to the delight of workers.

Nicola Sandercock is one of these workers, maintaining a regular four-day week in her role as a customer services representative for Melbourne-based cosmetics company Kester Black.

“I’ve always thought that working five days for two days off seems like a bit of a joke,” she told The New Daily.

“Having an extra day off has given me time to pursue other hobbies that I probably wouldn’t get to just over the weekend.”

Perhaps more importantly, the additional time out of the office has given Ms Sandercock the ability to manage her chronic fatigue and maintain a full-time job — a challenge she’s been forced to wrestle with at previous jobs.

While Kester Black offers all its employees the choice of a four-day or five-day week, those opting for the shorter are paid accordingly.

But across the Tasman, New Zealand-based financial services firm Perpetual Guardian has an even sweeter deal for employees: Work four days, get paid for five.

An eight-week trial of the shorter week saw employees more engaged, less stressed, and notably doing the same amount of work as they were over the course of five days.

That prompted Perpetual Guardian to offer staff the shortened week on an opt-in basis — provided they meet certain productivity targets.

Another modern take on employment has come from innovation consultancy Inventium, which introduced unlimited paid leave for staff in 2016.

The radical move was implemented by founder Dr Amantha Imber, who wanted to rectify what she saw as unfairness in her staff contracts.

“For us, it was addressing an imbalance in the hours that people work, which in management consulting can be pretty long,” she said.

“Hours were uncapped, but leave was capped at four weeks, and I thought it would be a lot fairer if leave was uncapped as well.”

“It was really about helping consultants find a better balance between their work and their lives, and three years later it’s done just that.”

The change has resulted in improved productivity, morale and engagement — “all the metrics you care about as a business owner”, she said.

But it’s not the only innovative policy in place.

After three months, new employees are offered a full month’s salary to resign — a policy intended to save the business the cost of training staff that plan on leaving.

“We’ve been doing that for three years now … I don’t think we’ve had anyone take it.”

These programs — though not suitable for everyone — can have a big impact, Dr Imber said.

But Australia remains “a little behind” other developed economies in adopting them.

“I would love to see more leaders having the guts to challenge how things are done and treat staff with the respect they deserve, which I don’t think happens in a lot of businesses unfortunately,” she said.

Employers the surprise winners

Surprisingly, employers may benefit as much from these sorts of working arrangements as staff.

Speaking to The New Daily, KPMG Partner of People and Change, Catia Davim said shorter work weeks can be “quite beneficial” for employees, giving them additional time for other interests and commitments without sacrificing productivity.

“We spend a lot of time in very unproductive activities and tasks, and possibly the function of that is that we have a timeframe that’s usually from nine to five, five days a week,” she said.

“From experience working with people in this organisation [KPMG] who work in many different arrangements, they tend to be far more productive when they have a shorter timeframe and a deadline.”

Anyone who has needed to duck out of their office early should be able to relate to this, Ms Davim said, as the psychological deadlines workers place on themselves under these conditions demonstrate how those same workers can manage a full workload in reduced timeframes.

* Killian Plastow is a finance and wealth journalist at The New Daily. He tweets at @KillianPlastow.

This article first appeared at thenewdaily.com.au/.

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