A New Zealand company called Perpetual Guardian, which manages trusts and estates, decided to experiment with moving its 250 employees to a four-day work week. In the experiment, employees worked four eight-hour days, rather than five eight-hour days, and researchers from the Auckland Institute of Technology studied the results.
The experiment worked so well that Perpetual Guardian has decided to permanently implement a four-day work week option. The researchers found that, during the trial period, there was less absenteeism, employees showed up on time, didn’t leave early, and took fewer breaks. The employees also reported increased productivity, more energy and focus, lower stress, and a better work-life balance under the new system. The experiment also indicated that workers at Perpetual Guardian identified where time was being wasted — such as in unnecessarily long meetings or office chatter — and changed their practices to be able to get their work done in a shorter work week.
And, because the Perpetual Guardian workers are completing the same quantity of work under the new system, they’ll continue to be paid what they were being paid for working a five-day week.
It all sounds good, but would it work in the United States? During my more than 40 years of working, changes to the standard 9-5 five-day work week — whether it’s shorter working days, or fewer working days — have been the Great White Whale of workplace reformers . . . and the five-day work week still generally prevails. But during that 40-year period many standard practices have changed. Leaves of absence and work-at-home arrangements are much more common. Workplace attire rules are much more relaxed. And employers generally seem to be a lot more flexible about taking time off to pick up kids or take an aging parent to a doctor’s appointment.
Of course, the morphing of the 9-5 five-day work week has worked in the opposite direction, too. With the advent of smartphones and laptops, white-collar workers are no longer tied to their office desks — and many find themselves toiling after hours and on weekends to answer emails or finish reports.
Will the four-day work week catch on? I’m skeptical — not because it’s not workable, but because I think the old days of standard, across-the-board practices applying to all workplaces and all businesses are behind us. Technology is allowing employers to shape their practices to their individual needs. For some employers, it might be a four-day week, for others, it might be an understanding that certain work needs to get done, without much concern about when or where that occurs, and for still others it might be something entirely different. And employers seem to have a much better attitude about the need to keep productive, capable workers on the job, even if it means bending or changing rules to accommodate their needs. I’m convinced that the American workplace will continue to morph.