If we look back to the early days of the traditional, 40-hour week, what stands out is that society was structured quite differently – and so were our expectations. By and large, we really did work just eight hours a day. Work didn’t seep into our nights or weekends – and holidays were about enjoying family time, rather than worrying about whether the WiFi is working.
Fast-forward to more recent years, and it’s equally clear that Millennials and Gen-Zers have looked on in horror at the way that us Boomers and Gen-Xers have greatly overvalued work in our lives. We’ve valued it over relationships, our contribution to society – and, from the perspective of Millennials and Gen-Zers, we’ve valued it over them, too.
That overvaluation has led us down a path where work has consumed too much space in our lives. And as a result of seeing Boomers and Gen-Xers succumb to burnout, Millennials and Gen-Zers are protesting in the forms of quiet quitting and the Great Resignation.
Before COVID, the problem with trying to get employers to adopt more flexible working patterns was that they required a layer of trust to allow for change. But the pandemic forced change ahead of trust – which meant that leaders had to quickly find ways to get comfortable with what was happening. That watershed left a permanent mark.
Now, we are hearing more and more stories about how artificial intelligence is set to take over our jobs, or assume responsibility for certain tasks – so, it looks like we’ll be forced to work less, anyway.
Clearly, we’ve reached an evolutionary moment in our relationship with work.
My non-profit community 4 Day Week Global helps organisations find ways to work fewer hours, through a focus on higher productivity. In 2018, my co-founder Andrew Barnes (the Boomer to my Gen-Xer) conducted a four-day week trial at his company Perpetual Guardian, New Zealand's largest corporate trustee firm. Among the results (see full details here), staff stress levels fell from 45% to 38% and work-life balance scores soared from 54% to 78%.
Lots of large organisations are very afraid about how they are going to do this. Many of them have carried out staff surveys on work styles, and their people are telling them consistently that they want to work to take up less space. Across the world, whenever employers ask staff whether they want to work fewer hours, the response tends to be between 75% and 85% in the affirmative – particularly if it won’t affect take-home pay.
So, it’s a big change. But one handy reference point is that Henry Ford ran a four-day week in the 1920s – and he’s credited with saying, “Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re right.”
Importantly – and I’ll repeat myself here for emphasis – the way round this goes is that if you address issues with organisational productivity, you will be in a position to reduce working hours. At the moment, a UK Private Members’ Bill on the 32-hour week is making its way through Parliament, and its sponsor Peter Dowd has said that by reducing working hours, you will elevate productivity. That, with respect, is the wrong way round.
We stress to the companies that enter our pilot programme that this is not a ‘set-and-forget’ deal. It’s a systematic effort to focus on, measure and empower staff to boost productivity. It’s a constant state of process improvement that, in time, provides firms with opportunities to open up space in their schedules and achieve the conditions of a four-day week.
In August last year, we began a four-day week experiment across 26 companies in Australasia. We announced the results in May, and one of the most encouraging outcomes was that men in heterosexual relationships had increased their share of housework and childcare. In addition, employees had sharpened their focus on cracking through their daily to-do lists, and – in even more pleasing news – had begun to invest more time in hobbies and creativity. Plus, sleep was up and insomnia was down.
The initial stage of the process we coach companies through is purely for senior executives. When I asked the execs at a large, Australian firm what they thought they would get out of the programme, several of them said words to the effect of, “Well – I’ve got a parent in elder care, and I’d just like to be able to visit them without feeling like I’m in a rush.” So, there’s very much a desire among leadership figures at the companies we engage with for certain things to change on the quality-of-life front that will enable them to feel like they’re not doing everything at 100 miles an hour.
Crucially, we are not wedded to the four-day week as a rigid template that every business should follow. The principle that our community has trademarked is called the 100-80-100 Rule – 100% pay while working 80% of the time and hitting 100% productivity. That, rather than the four-day week per se, is our guiding light.
In the early days of our initiative, we worked with well-meaning bosses who had their hearts set on closing down on Fridays. That works absolutely fine until, for example, you lose a big client, gain a big client, or end up in the middle of a pandemic – and you haven’t built any flexibility into the system to adjust to those huge changes. So, one point we make clear as we take companies through our process is that the precise shape or pattern of reduced time you settle on is something that you develop in collaboration with your staff.
One example I like to use of how that works in practice is a father in a company we worked with whose hours were rejigged around him wanting to walk his daughter to school every day of the working week – something that was much more important to him than, say, not working on Fridays.
There are so many great aspects to that very simple decision. His productivity is high, because having that extra time with his daughter each morning is extremely valuable to him. His team’s productivity is also very high, because they understand how important the arrangement is to him, and want him to be able to keep it. Likewise, he knows that his team members have ways of working that they want to maintain, and he is doing everything he can in terms of his own output to support them.
Then you look at the equally encouraging family benefits. Psychology tells us that a daughter who has had a significant relationship with her father will mature into a strong woman. And let’s think about the wife who has a bit more time to herself in the morning to get ready – and perhaps a bit more quiet – and arrives at work in a far more settled, productive state.
As for the daughter, this is a child who is being parented by her parents. A famous parenting educator here in New Zealand says that children spell ‘love’ T-I-M-E. If we want a better life for our children going forward, then giving them that time is essential. And there are many people not just in Gen-X and Gen-Z, but also in the Millennial and Boomer categories, who want more time with their loved ones, too.