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New Zealand

‘Heck it was productive’: New Zealand company trials four-day work week .... but will it stick?

Trustee company Perpetual Guardian is halfway through a six-week trial that could have profound implications for the future of labour in the country – with 200 staff given a third day off every week

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 March, 2018, 4:12pm
UPDATED : Friday, 30 March, 2018, 4:12pm

On the first long weekend of her employer’s experiment with a four-day working week, Kirsten Taylor freaked out a little bit. Like a housework hurricane, she got through mounds of clothes-washing, weeded the garden, cleaned the windows and mowed the lawn.

It had been lovely to spend extra time with her 21-month-old son, but by the end of the third day off she was shattered.

“I actually found that day really hard. I ran myself ragged,” laughs Taylor, who is a solo mother. “I hadn’t yet programmed that routine into my life. I thought: I don’t know when the next one of these is coming, I better get everything done. I don’t think I did it well, but heck it was a productive day!”

Taylor is one of 200 employees at New Zealand trustee company Perpetual Guardian, which is halfway through a six-week trial that could have profound implications for the future of labour. Staff are working four days a week but getting paid for five.

The experiment began in early March and will conclude in mid-April, after which productivity data will be collated and analysed. Employees will find out if the new routine will be adopted full-time in July.

People have been thinking quite hard about that third day off and how best to use it so it can change their life
Christine Brotherton

New Zealanders work an average of 1,752 hours a year, making them close to average compared with their OECD peers. Germans spend the least amount of time working annually, closely followed by Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands, while Mexicans, Koreans and Costa Ricans clock the most.

Luxembourg is the most productive country in the world, despite its workers toiling away for an average of only 29 hours per week.

Last year the Autonomy Institute made renewed calls for the implementation of a four-day week, saying it would help even out the unhealthy distribution of work and shift focus to producing better work in a shorter time.

Christine Brotherton, head of people and capability for Perpetual Guardian, said many employees brought a similar level of focus to making the most of the extra day off as they would apply to their work.

“People have been thinking quite hard about that third day off and how best to use it so it can change their life. Some people come back to work and are incredibly energised,” said Brotherton.

“People have been training for marathons, going to the dentist, getting their car serviced, or doing the shopping for their elderly parents. All the stuff that has been put on the back burner, but either helps themselves or their family. Life administration.

“But some people haven’t quite realised that if we have three days off, the four at the office have to be very productive, and we need to address that,” she adds.

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For the last two years a Swedish care home trialled a six-hour work day, with mixed results. Benefits included a 10 per cent drop in sick leave and higher job satisfaction, but overall increased costs by 20 per cent.

Amazon is also reportedly piloting a 30-hour work week for some employees. While workers on the 30-hour work week receive the same benefits as full-time employees, they earn 75 per cent of the salary – and the results of the pilot are not in yet. KPMG and Deloitte offer four-day work weeks to some employees (with certain conditions attached), while Google allows some employees full control over 20 per cent of their working week, hoping that the creative freedom will lead to new ideas and innovations.

Perpetual Guardian’s chief executive Andrew Barnes, a Briton, said the experiment is generating interesting data, which will be analysed by academics at two leading New Zealand universities before a decision on extending the trial is made.

According to Barnes, some employees have found the reduced time to complete their work stressful. “People were really positive going in, then a bit negative, then positive again,” said Barnes. “In general terms, people are more positive because they are suddenly able to do things that they otherwise couldn’t do.”

Supporters of reduced working hours have been lauding the trial. “I don’t feel the pressure for it to succeed, but I think my staff do. People are telling me: we have to make this work for New Zealand,” said Barnes.

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“From my point of view, it’s very difficult as an owner of a business to see any way that this is not positive for me at the moment.”

But he expressed disappointment at the lack of interest in the trial shown by the New Zealand government, despite its potential implications for addressing issues from work-life balance and the gender pay gap, to the health and mental well-being of working New Zealanders.

Having survived her day of housework, Kirsten Taylor has now settled into the new routine. She loves spending more time with her son, saving money on childcare and getting through her to-do list. Her personality and “head down, bum up” work style suit the arrangement perfectly, she said.

While her colleagues still socialise during the work day, the office space is quieter and more concentrated, and “water-cooler chats” are briefer. “I am feeling significantly better equipped when I begin the work week now,” she said.

“[The trial] was definitely more pressurised than I would ever have expected. But now I am nervous about when it ends. I don’t know anyone who wants to return to the old routine.”