How can we make a four-day work week work?

How can we make a four-day work week work?

By Kate Neilson

Unilever Australia & New Zealand is the latest organisation to hit the headlines for its move to a four-day work week, but how is it actually making this work in practice? Its Head of HR shares some advice.

After years of employees hoping and praying for the four-day work week, it looks as though it could become more common in the near future. In fact, many organisations are already experimenting with a compressed style of working.

In September, the UK finished a six-month experiment in which 3300 employees embraced the four-day work week. The results showed that 88 per cent of participating employers felt it worked well for their organisation and nearly half (46 per cent) saw an increase in productivity.

Australia and New Zealand also jumped on the short-week trend, with companies committing to a six-month trial earlier this year, the results of which are yet to be shared. Similar trials are also taking place in Ireland, the U.S, Canada and Spain.

While some companies have been trialing the four-day week for years now, it was usually the domain of smaller, more agile companies. However, large companies are now putting their hats in the ring.

One of the most recent organisations to embrace this new style of working is Unilever Australia & New Zealand. Following an 18-month trial with a smaller group of employees in its New Zealand offices, Unilever saw significant improvements in terms of productivity and employee wellbeing.

“Flexibility is the new currency,” says Anish Singh, Head of HR for Australia and New Zealand at Unilever. “The four-day work week is a true experiment for the future of work – a concept that is energising for our people and our business,” he says. “We want to empower people to embrace the gift of time.”

Two-Day Hybrid Summit: Women in Leadership Summit

Unilever’s four-day work week

Off the back of the trial’s success in New Zealand, Unilever, which owns brands including Dove, Streets and Continental, announced it would allow around 500 employees in its Australian office to work a four-day week.

This experiment will run for 12 months and will be modelled on the 100:80:100 model, where employees receive 100 per cent of their pay for giving 100 per cent of their productivity and effort within 80 per cent of their usual work week.

“Our office will continue to operate for five days of the week so there is no disruption for our customers,” says Singh. “The flexible work week needs to be determined at both individual and team levels.”

This means employees are allowed to determine their days off as their schedules change. 

“My take on this is that the moment you give freedom and flexibility to people, they make it work. The moment you put policies and guardrails around it, it starts becoming too complex. You need to make sure people feel fully empowered.”

 “The four-day work week is a true experiment for the future of work – a concept that is energising for our people and our business.” – Anish Singh, Head of HR, Australia and New Zealand, Unilever

The program is not mandatory. People can opt out and opt back in again in the future because, as Singh notes, it won’t be for everyone.

“We will ensure our teams are set up for success, providing training programs which outline work hacks to help them operate more efficiently. But we understand that some people might choose to opt out if they can’t cope with the condensed workload,” he says. 

At this stage, the four-day work week does not include Unilever’s factory workers, but this doesn’t mean they are off Singh’s radar.

“Flexible ways of working need to work for everybody, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. The trial is now in place for our office-based employees, but we’re exploring the best approach to flexible working for those working in our factories.”

Impressive results

You might be thinking that the 100:80:100 model sounds pretty idealistic. And you wouldn’t be alone. In a survey of 211 AHRI members on the LinkedIn member’s lounge, 23 per cent of people said they didn’t think it was a realistic model and 16 per cent said they were unsure if it would work.

While it might sound risky, Singh says there’s plenty of data that HR teams can utilise to build a compelling business case for a shorter week at full pay.

“Where possible, you need to get leadership over the line with good data points,” he says. 

For example, here are some that might pique their interest: 

  • Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand-based statutory trust business that has been operating on a four-day week since 2018 based on the 100:80:100 model, found that 78 per cent of employees could more effectively balance work and life obligations. (Read the Perpetual case study here).
  • In Iceland, compressed work week experiments conducted between 2015 and 2019 saw a noticeable drop in employees’ stress and the same or improved productivity levels. As a result, over 85 per cent of Iceland’s workforce either operate on a shorter work week or have the right to do so.
  • Sixty three per cent of businesses found it easier to attract and retain talent with a four-day week, according to 4 Day Week Global.

You could even call on Unilever’s own preliminary results.

The University of Technology Sydney (UTS) dove into the data behind Unilever’s 18-month trial in New Zealand. It conducted nearly 60 interviews with individual employees and three company-wide surveys, and uncovered some impressive results.

Absenteeism fell by 34 per cent in a 12-month period, work-life conflict dropped by 67 per cent and stress levels appeared to drop by a third.

“We also maintained 100 per cent stakeholder satisfaction scores,” says Singh. “Australian Unilever employees who work with their New Zealand counterparts were the ones who gave that satisfaction score.”

Making it work

Operating a successful four-day work week requires more than simply chopping a work day from the week. There is some foundational work that needs to be considered, as well as guardrails, to help an initiative like this to be a success.

For example:

1. Eliminate unnecessary meetings

A critical factor in Unilever’s success so far was reducing the amount of time employees spent in meetings.

On average, knowledge workers spend 127 hours in unnecessary meetings each year, according to a report from Asana

By conducting an analysis of its approach to meetings, Unilever cut out 3.5 hours of unnecessary meetings each week by making people reconsider the nature of each gathering.

“If you’re calling for a meeting, you need to define the objective and the desired outcome. And if pre-reading is required, it needs to be sent in advance. If these things aren’t factored in then people don’t need to attend the meeting – we give them the license to do that.”

You could also try running meetings in a more strategic manner. As HRM recently reported, concepts such as ‘silent meetings‘ can help to streamline communication, as can utilsing the video recording functionality on instant messaging platforms. Why set up a 30-minute meeting when you can update colleagues on items via a 3-minute video?

2. Don’t let employees take advantage of the system

Singh says a mindset shift is often required to avoid employees thinking of a compressed work week as an entitlement and taking advantage of it.

“Employees needed to see this as ‘the gift of the fifth,’” he says. “We consistently reinforce this message so the initiative is appreciated and respected.”

Speaking to HRM in 2021, Perpetual Guardian’s CEO Patrick Gamble said, “You do have to stay on top of some people. We have some staff who take it really seriously – they have shorter meetings; they don’t muck around – but we have the odd few who struggle to maintain discipline.

“In order to ensure you’re not sending the business off a cliff, you need to be able to measure the productivity you expect from people,” said Gamble.

He suggested breaking those productivity KPIs into teams. For example, Perpetual’s legal team was consulted about how their productivity should be measured. They came back with a variety of ideas – from documents processed to estates they had gone through. They also needed a clear signal if things were going off track.

“That could be things like turnaround time for clients or number of complaints. Once you set that baseline, when you can say, ‘I’m paying you to produce X-hundred documents’ then you have more confidence that everyone can still be productive in less hours because you have something to measure against,” he says.

If teams failed to meet their agreed-upon KPIs, the privilege of the extra day off work was removed until results improved.

3. Make sure you align with your business’s goals

Before taking something like this on, Singh says it’s important to understand the needs of your organisation.

For example, are you trying to scale, stabilise, innovate or diversify? Once your North Star has been identified, you can assess whether or not a four-day week would be suitable.

For example, it might help from an innovation perspective, as people’s minds will be fresher and their workloads more streamlined, but it could hinder if you’re trying to stabilise after a turbulent event.

Perfect your pitch

When pitching an idea like this to the board or executive team, consider how you position your message. Singh suggests your business case should always lead back to greater productivity.

“If it’s just a culture or wellbeing thing – even though both of those things are incredibly important – it could be a hard sell. You need to show how it would link to the business’s P&L.”

Finally, Singh says not to treat something like this as a policy change; treat it like an experiment.

“Try it one way, pivot and then make it perfect later,” he says.

“HR professionals often want to make an inspiring place to work. And it can be very simple, but you need to bring rigour, deep listening and design thinking. If you can design an experience that works for employees, teams and the organisation, then it should work.”

*Kate Neilson is the editor of HRMOnline and HRM magazine. Previously, she has held media roles in financial services and with the NSW Government.

*This article first appeared on the website.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *