Humans, at their core, are hardwired to contribute. Everything living, to some extent, “works” to ensure they can eat, breathe, and reproduce.
Beyond these basics, we also work to find purpose and meaning and exist in social groups.
As such, the evolution of “work” has led here; to the traditional five-day workweek, a staple in the professional world for at least a century.
However, the winds of change are blowing, and Australia is at the forefront of a potential shift towards a four-day work week (aptly nicknamed the 4DWW).
A recent report from Swinburne University provides a deep dive into this emerging trend.
Are We a Bunch of Slackers? A Look at Historical Context
Union battles led to the establishment of the eight-hour workday, the improvement of working conditions, and the elimination of child labour. This leads us to assume that the typical worker probably had it rough in the ancient world before this, right?
The answer is unquestionably yes if you go back a century or two.
Workers throughout the Industrial Revolution put in 14-hour days, six days a week, sometimes in hazardous conditions, without modern-day programs like insurance or Australian workplace health and safety laws.
So, yes, you could say we're all slackers compared to them.
However, in a recent piece for the Financial Times, James Suzman, an anthropologist, explained the results of his decades-long study of hunter-gatherer tribes in Africa and found that people in the 21st century are probably working more than people in ancient times.
Southern African hunter-gatherer communities, for example, probably only worked an average of 15 hours a week.
According to Suzman's findings in anthropology, these hunter-gatherer tribes spent most of their time engaging in relatively undemanding pastimes like producing music, creating art, travelling, adorning their bodies for ceremonies, and interacting with others.
Jumping forward, according to the World History Encyclopedia, most Ancient Romans probably worked six hours, beginning at sunrise and ending at noon.
So, perhaps a 4DWW isn’t so absurd after all?
The Unsurprising Catalyst for Change
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a game-changer in many ways, reshaping our perceptions of work.
With the pandemic came a surge in demand for flexible work arrangements. Given the safety constraints set up by national and state authorities, employers globally had to rethink work arrangements. This shift also led to significant changes in employee expectations.
We all know the effects: we learned to make sourdough (well, most of us), and we exercised more than ever before, with it being one of the few outdoor lockdown activities apart from buying groceries.
The Great Resignation is a term that might sound familiar. If you're not in HR or have been living off the grid, here's a refresher: the unemployment rate in Australia hit a record low of 3.40 per cent in July of 2022, with a slight increase of just 0.2 points since then.
This low unemployment rate has put pressure on employers to not only find but also retain top talent.
What is the 4DWW?
Enter the 4DWW, a concept from the 1970s that has made a comeback.
It offers employees more time for personal tasks, health, wellness, and hobbies. For employers, it presents a competitive edge in a challenging market.
In essence, the four-day work week usually involves these ingredients:
- Employees are paid the same wage
- Employees work less hours (total)
- Employees have a work day off
In June 2022, sixty-one UK enterprises embarked on a six-month 4DWW project with 4 Day Week Global.
They reduced their weekly work hours but kept their salaries intact.
The results, released in February 2023, were telling:
- A massive 92% of the businesses continued with the 4DWW agreement post-trial
- HR managers noted a 65% decrease in turnover and a 57% reduction in worker departures
- 71% of employees took fewer sick days
- On the wellbeing front, 39% of employees felt less pressured than before the study, while the same percentage reported experiencing burnout
The Australian Perspective on 4DWW
Great Place to Work® certified financial advice firm Invest Blue told MiTraining that “all key productivity and revenue measures have increased since the inception of their reduced working hours. Employees have also commented that they feel more energised and motivated”.
A variation to the 4DWW, Invest Blue employees take a day off a fortnight, allowing them to contribute to their local communities, spend more time with family and fit in health and wellbeing activities.
Swinburne University's research, conducted in June 2023, delved into the experiences of businesses embracing the 4DWW. The study revealed that while the transition offers numerous benefits, it has challenges.
Benefits for Employers
1. Employee Recruitment and Retention: From an employer's point of view, running a 4DWW makes it easier to keep current employees and draw new ones. By offering a 4DWW, the companies that take part can fight for talent based on work conditions and freedom, not just income. Offering a 4DWW has made companies more attractive to potential talent. Some firms even reported a staggering 600% increase in job applications after announcing their shift to a 4DWW.
2. Increased Productivity: About 1 in 5 businesses switched to a 4DWW to try and increase productivity. Contrary to what sceptics might believe, 70% of the firms reported higher productivity levels after the transition and 30% said it stayed the same (nobody reported a reduction in productivity).
3. Reduced Sick Days: In a separate study, researchers from the University of Cambridge and Boston College found that the four-day workweek reduced employees’ sick and personal days. Sixty-one companies in the UK agreed to cut all employees' hours by 20% for six months, starting in June 2022, without cutting their pay. There was a 65% reduction in sick days, compared to the same period the previous year. Company revenue barely changed during the trial period – even increasing marginally by 1.4% on average.
Challenges for Employers
1. Scepticism: Overcoming the traditional mindset that equates longer hours with productivity is a significant hurdle.
2. Reduced Availability of Staff: Companies have to restructure their operations to ensure they maintain the same level of service to clients and customers with reduced working days.
3. Part-Time Workers: Integrating part-time employees into the 4DWW model posed its own set of challenges. How much time do they accrue off?
Benefits for Employees
1. Life Admin: With an extra day off, individuals can manage personal tasks. If this day aligns with a weekend, it allows for three-day breaks, ideal for short trips, family visits, or rest.
2. Health and Wellness: Many use the additional day for self-care, be it through exercise, medical check-ups, relaxation classes, or gardening.
3. Hobbies and New Pastimes: The extra day has allowed employees to rediscover old hobbies or pick up new ones, such as joining a community group or volunteering.
Challenges for Employees
1. Increased Workload Intensity: Employees might face longer hours each day (even if they are paid the same wage) to ensure all tasks are completed, leading to increased stress.
2. Adapting to New Schedules: Like employers, employees must change their work style to ensure they can coordinate with clients or suppliers on a traditional five-day schedule.
3. Work-Life Balance Concerns: If the business doesn’t reduce the work hours and simplify re-arranges the hours from five days (7.6 hours per day) to four days (9.5 hours per day), the more extended workdays could interfere with personal commitments, family time, or self-care routines, making it challenging for employees to maintain balance.
Implementing Netflix's Strategies for Seamless Cultural Transformation
To make the 4DWW a success, companies can consider adopting several methods from a high-performing workplace like Netflix, known for its industry-disruptive HR and leadership culture that has led to them becoming a 175.57 billion dollar company.
Talent Density Over Quantity
Prioritise hiring one exceptional individual over multiple average ones and adjust salaries to offer top talent more than competitors.
The founder of Netflix, Reed Hastings, recommends that hiring managers "fortify the talent density in your workforce. For all creative roles, hire one exceptional employee instead of ten or more average ones... If you can’t afford to pay your best employees top of the market, let go of some of the less fabulous people to do so."
Candor and Feedback
Encourage a culture of candid feedback among talented employees, breaking away from polite human protocols so people can share kindly, constructively and honestly so everyone can improve and grow.
Hastings advises, "Increase candour. Talented employees have an enormous amount to learn from one another... When talented staff members get into the feedback habit, they all get better at what they do while becoming implicitly accountable to one another."
Pay creative workers at the top of the market value, avoid performance-based bonuses, and channel those resources into salaries, encouraging employees to understand their market value continuously.
Hastings says, "The methods used by most companies to compensate employees are not ideal for a creative, high-talent-density workforce... Don’t pay performance-based bonuses. Put these resources into salary instead."
The Global Implications
While Australia is leading the charge, the 4DWW movement is gaining traction worldwide. Countries like New Zealand, Spain, and Japan have conducted trials, and the results are promising.
The global workforce echoes a collective sentiment: the desire for a more balanced life where work doesn't overshadow personal pursuits.
Key Takeaways for HR and Leaders
- Australia is at the vanguard of transitioning to a streamlined four-day operational week.
- Companies notice enhanced productivity and a competitive advantage in recruitment
- Businesses can seamlessly integrate the four-day paradigm with the right people and processes.