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10 mins

What are the benefits and risks of the four-day work week? Why are businesses considering and trialling it? And if you are interested, how do you get started?


Right now, the four-day work week is getting a lot of media across the world. This is the model where an
employee moves from working five days per week to four days, but continues getting paid the same salary


Benefits

The proponents of the four-day work week, and there are quite a lot around the world, say that there are many benefits, for example, take a look at 4 Day Week Global and the section on the Australian and New Zealand pilot

Productivity

At the moment, if you’re working full-time in Australia, research shows you work an average of 41 hours per week. But chances are, you’re not actually working for all of those 41 hours

Perhaps you take an hour lunch break, perhaps you’re having chats with people through the day, you’re going out to the shops, you’re heading to the gym, you’re having coffee breaks, you’re having smoke breaks, you’re just taking some time to go into the kitchen and chill out for a little while. 

It’s unlikely that most people working a 41-hour week are fully productive for all of those 41 hours. Research suggests we are actually much more productive when we work in smaller chunks, with consistent breaks, than when we try to push on through. 

It’s unlikely that most people working a 41-hour week are fully productive for all of those 41 hours.‘

If you think about studying, if you have ever tried to cram for an exam, you might agree that cramming is not as good as working in small chunks over time. So the idea is that we’re actually more productive, even though we’re doing fewer hours, because we’re likely to get more done. 

Employee Wellbeing

Some people wonder if employee wellbeing is actually a business benefit. But if your employees have a high level of wellbeing, they’re less likely to:

  • take sick days
  • injure themselves at work
  • make workers’ compensation claims

And they’re more likely to be productive as well.

It’s probably self-explanatory, but employees show higher levels of wellbeing on a four-day work week because they have one day to do other things, like spending time with their kids, working on a hobby, or taking long weekends. It changes people’s personal lives as well as their work lives. 

Engagement & Retention

If I’m a really high performer in your business and you say to me, ‘I’m gonna pay you exactly the same amount of money, but you now only need to work four days per week’. Well, I’m going to be pretty happy about that. 

And I am not going to be able to go to another business and get a four-day work week on the same amount of money. That’s how the four-day week can increase engagement and retention.

Attraction

If you offer a four-day work week, with a full-time salary, that’s going to be very attractive to most people when they’re looking for a new job. So you’re going to be able to hire better candidates into the business. 

Inclusion & Gender Equity

Let’s say that the four-day work week was more widespread, and both parents have a four-day week. Suddenly, you can use childcare only three days per week, as both parents can spend a weekday each week with their children. It means that both parents can share more of the caring and domestic duties.

‘It means that both parents can share more of the caring and domestic duties.’

In a business context, the business can attract more women and people with caring responsibilities which can increase inclusion and gender equality.

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Risks & Costs

So if they are the benefits, what are the risks or the potential costs? 

Outcomes-Driven Roles

Years ago, prior to COVID, I spoke with someone at a conference whose business had introduced a four-day work week. My first question was, can it work if the roles aren’t well defined around outcomes? The same question has come up over the pandemic, with people needing to work from home. 

That’s because we often assume that a role is being done because the person is doing a particular number of hours. Going into a four-day work week challenges that assumption. Suddenly, we’re not hiring people to do a number of hours, we’re hiring them to deliver a number of outcomes

we often assume that a role is being done because the person is doing a particular number of hours’

The problem with this is that our industrial relations system is set up to track hours – I work so many hours, I get paid X amount. If you have a workforce, which is mainly covered by an Award, it may be more difficult to move to an outcomes-based approach. You will need to respect the constraints of the Award and potentially get legal advice about how to make it work. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it may be a little bit more difficult. 

Even without the ‘Awards’ issue, most businesses I come across do not have roles defined around outcomes. Often there’s a little bit of work to do in defining exactly what you need that role to deliver. Once you’ve done that, it doesn’t matter whether the person delivers it in 10 hours, or 20 hours, or 30 hours. You just need that outcome delivered.

Manager Expectations

If I’m paying a certain amount of money for a set of outcomes, I might find that person A can deliver those outcomes in three days, and person B can deliver them in two days. As a business owner, I might think, ‘well, I need to give them more things to do on the other day’

But is that right? Is it equitable? Again, it’s not impossible, but it does take some deliberation to look at the roles across the business and decide how you want to run things

Customer Expectations

One of the reasons working from home has become so widespread is that since COVID, everybody is doing it. It was much trickier before the pandemic, in part because of customer expectations. We needed to be onsite with them for face-to-face meetings, and that expectation made it more difficult to have our staff working from home.

Now people are quite used to taking video meetings, it’s become normal. But three years ago, it wasn’t. I know in my business, all of our meetings with potential and existing clients were face-to-face. 

It’s the same with a four-day work week. If you’re being a trailblazer, and you’re doing a four-day work week, but your customers aren’t, then you need to think about how you’re going to manage that fifth day across the business. 

Does it mean everybody in the business works the same four days? Do you stagger them? How will the teams work? Again, it’s not impossible, but it needs to be considered.

Squeezing 41 Hours into 4 Days

Another issue is the risk of pushing a 41-hour week into four days. If you’ve ever gone from full-time work to part-time work, you may have experienced this, I know I have. When your job is a full-time job but all of a sudden, you have to do it within three or four days. 

The trick is to take a realistic look at productivity and ask:

  • can this job be done in four days? 
  • are there bits that we need to take out of the role and put into another role by looking at those outcomes? 
  • Are there check-in points with everybody so we can ensure we’re not burning people out? 

Now, hopefully, there should be enough ‘fat’ in the week that people aren’t feeling burnt out by losing that one day, but it’s certainly a consideration. 

Mindset Shift

One question often comes up around the four-day week: are we just adding costs to the business? And with part-timers, you may be.

Say I’m already working four days a week, and my colleague’s working five days a week. You say to my colleague, ‘you can now work four days for the same money,’ but you keep me on my lower salary, 80% of the full-time rate, for working the same hours. I’m not going to be happy about that. You may need to increase my pay to the full-time equivalent, effectively giving me a 20% raise. So it’s worth looking at the impact across the business, and what it is going to cost you in those sorts of scenarios. 

The four-day week is a bit of a leap. It relies on the premise that moving people from five days to four days is not adding costs, because they’re going to be just as, if not more, productive. We need to believe this is the case, and we need to instill that belief into all of our leaders and managers as well. 

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How do you do it?

If you’d like to try a four-day week in your business, here’s how to get started.

Consult

In Australia, the Fair Work Act requires consultation for any major workplace changes. But also, it’s just a good thing to do. If you’re going to move to something like this, you should talk to your teams about it and work through the benefits and the risks covered here. 

People in your business might come up with other benefits, and other concerns. Although you may assume that your employees will jump for joy at the idea, there will be people that will be concerned they’re going to burn out. 

It’s important to consult with everyone, bring them into the process, and then work out what will work for your business. 

Run a trial

It makes sense to run a trial with set objectives and milestones. Define your measures of success and make sure you feel that the trial was successful before you move to a more permanent model. 

Consider Your Part-Timers

Your part-timers will have questions, and you’ll need to have answers for them. Like this: if I’m currently working three days per week, getting 60% of the full-time equivalent, will I now get 75%, because I’m doing three days out of four, not three days out of five?

Spread the Word

If you try a four-day week at this time in Australia, you’ll be a bit of a trailblazer. It’s a good idea to spread the word. Let people know:

  • why you’re doing it
  • how you’re running your trial
  • what your objectives are
  • what happens at the end

Leverage Your Small Business Advantage

Introducing a four-day work week is possibly easier for small businesses than big ones. You generally can talk to everybody in the business, understand everyone’s individual circumstances and concerns, and clearly define outcomes for each of your roles. 

If you’re in a larger company, you may actually need to use an organisation to help with the pilot. There are many organisations that can help.

It’s also worth thinking about your strategy if your trial doesn’t work. If you get everybody working four days a week for six months, and then assess the trial and realise it didn’t work, how will you turn this back around to five days in the most considerate way without demotivating your employees? 

The Takeaway

If you try a four-day week you will be putting your head a bit above the parapet. There are definite risks, however, the benefits may be worthwhile. You may discover that productivity is as good or better. And that you’ve got better wellbeing, engagement, retention, attraction, inclusion and equality within your organisation. These are all huge competitive advantages, not just in attracting new staff, but also in retaining employees, customers and suppliers as well.

A four-day week makes a big statement about the type of organisation you are, that you are an innovative business, a trailblazer and you are willing to try things that not everybody is doing right now. 

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