Why New Zealand companies could soon introduce a four-day working week

News 19/02/2019

One New Zealand company wants every business to try a four-day work week - and it's giving away how to do it for free.

Legal services trust Perpetual Guardian made international headlines in February 2018 when it began a six-week trial in which employees were given one extra day off a week.

A year on, the shortened week is fully integrated into the company and founder Andrew Barnes says he'll never go back.

"Our productivity has gone up, our profits have gone up, our staff retention has improved, our stress levels have dropped," he told The AM Show.

He's so passionate about the scheme, he's offering his own expertise free of charge.

On Tuesday Perpetual Guardian launched their 'white paper', a free how-to kit for businesses interested in implementing the four-day week. Mr Barnes says he hopes the complimentary information will get some large New Zealand companies on the bandwagon.

"We think this is so important that we are sharing all the intellectual property, we're just handing it to people and saying 'give it a go'. It's too important for our country."

He says the majority of the workforce is now millennials looking for flexibility, and the danger is they will resort to unstable 'gig jobs' which could have lasting repercussions for New Zealand.

"Gig jobs mean people aren't investing in people, they don't have superannuation, they don't have healthcare, they don't have sick pay. Sooner or later we as a country are going to pick that tab up.

"The alternative is that companies say actually hang on, let's provide those protections as we do normally but let's provide the flexibility that people now need to get back in their lives. What's the worst that can happen?"

He says 53 different countries have picked up on the story in the last year, and Perpetual Guardian is in talks with about 100 companies around the world from the UK to Bulgaria to the notoriously workaholic Japan.

"I think this is an issue whose time has come. We talk about the need for flexibility in the workplace, this is a method to give flexibility but to look after your workers."

He cites a survey which revealed British workers are only productive for two and a half hours a day, which he says shows the need to "work smarter".

"We're focusing far too much on the time that people spend in the office, not what it is they actually produce."

It's not just "grunt workers" who are encouraged to take a day off, but those in managerial roles as well who tend to have trouble switching off. 

"In the trials I made my senior leaders take the day because it's all about changing the attitude within an organisation," he says. "If the senior people say 'I'm never going to do that', then the junior staff aren't going to do it.

"Because we're always switched on, you actually need to find a way to get down time. Like a sports offseason, it's about down time to give yourself time to think, to do things with your family, to engage with your community. The four-day week achieves that, and that's why at all levels this is appropriate."

Perpetual Guardian doesn't cut employees' pay in the scheme, and it doesn't pressure them to work longer hours to make up for the day off.

"This is about working smarter, it's not about working longer," Mr Barnes says.

"We talk about productivity, which is why we don't ask you to work longer hours, we don't cut your pay. You're delivering what you said you were going to deliver, so we say 'that's fine', you deliver that, we'll gift you a day off."

Host Duncan Garner suggested a short working week could be the best - and cheapest - solution to New Zealand's mental health crisis. 

"One in five of our workforce, at any point in time, has a mental health issue," Mr Barnes says.

"Let's talk about traffic jams, you get stressed because you're arriving late, that's actually adding to stress at work. You try to get home, you have the same issue. If you take 20 percent of cars off the road every day, you drop the traffic, you drop stress, carbon emissions, all sorts of things. It's all about just giving it a go."

In terms of which weekday makes the best extra weekend, Mr Barnes says "any day's a good day to take off" - but agreed Wednesdays might be ideal to break up the week.