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Interview: The 4-Day Week Works Everywhere

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Lena Krainz Guest Columnist
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This article is republished from Scoop.me under a Creative Commons license.

Four years ago, New Zealand’s trust company Perpetual Guardian introduced a 4-day week to work less for the same pay. The attempt was so successful and the worldwide response so enormous that director Andrew Barnes and a colleague founded an international lobby organization for the 4-day week: 4 Day Week Global. In an interview with Kontrast, founder Andrew Barnes says the 4-day work week is an opportunity to change the world. 

The “4 Day Week Global” works with leading universities, such as Boston College, the University of Queensland, and the University of Sydney, among others, and has already reached 5.5 billion people. The non-profit platform has accompanied countless attempts to reduce working hours around the globe, including the largest attempt in the UK with their campaign. 

Kontrast: Why did you co-found the organization 4 Day Week Global?

When we ran the 4-day week trial in our own company, Perpetual Guardian, in 2018, there was a huge global response that we didn’t expect. And not just media-wise, but literally thousands of companies got in touch and asked, “How did you do it? What did you learn from this?” And so, a colleague and I decided to share our experience with others.

When we announced the final results and that we would keep the 4-day week after the pilot phase, there was another huge media response. At that point, we said to ourselves, this is bigger than us—we need to start an organization. Since then, we have been supporting companies to introduce measures like the four-day week, lobbying governments, and doing research on working time reduction.

I believe that the impact on society and workers is so positive that we should work for it. You don’t get many chances to change the world.

Employees Worldwide Want More Free Time

Kontrast: Why do you think the reaction was so enormous?

I think, first of all, it was probably a day when there wasn’t much else going on, and everyone was thinking, what the hell are those crazy New Zealanders doing? But basically, I think two things happened. One, it hit the zeitgeist. I think 80% of working people around the world, regardless of their culture, also think that they would like to have more free time. And secondly, the pandemic came and changed a lot of things. I believe that people, both employers, and employees, are now questioning the way they worked before the pandemic and are looking for different solutions. The pandemic proved that you can do things differently.

Another reason the Perpetual Guardian trial got so much attention worldwide was that we accompanied the trial with independent research. So it wasn’t just me sitting there saying, “Hey, that was good.” It was an independent academic study that said, “These are the results, and these are statistically important deviations from what we saw before. So I think ultimately the research is helping to prove the benefits of the 4-day week. The narratives from the individual companies are also helpful, but it’s the combination of these two factors that I think underscores that we’re on to something big. The idea is much more robust than you might think.

Long-Term Consequences of the 4-Day Week

Kontrast: So it all started with the trial at Perpetual Guardian in 2018. Can you explain what has happened since then?

In November 2018, we made the reduction in working hours permanent at Perpetual Guardian. We have found that productivity has remained high. I think we are twice as productive per capita as one of our nearest competitors. We haven’t experienced the backsliding that people fear when you permanently reduce working hours. We have found that it is easier to attract and retain good staff.

Our sick days have been halved. And of course our costs are also lower because we no longer need so much space and our electricity bills are lower.

Internationally, we have seen a four-day week grow globally from a few staff exchanging ideas over the internet to a global organization now running trials in the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, UK, Spain, Portugal, South Africa, and Israel. We have influenced legislative changes in the US, Romania, Lithuania, Belgium, Russia, Japan, and India. We know that there are now governments in Scotland, Wales, Central and South America actively considering how to introduce a four-day week. And then there is the United Arab Emirates, which has actually done it.

Larger and larger companies are also coming out of the woodwork and starting to actively think about how they can attract and retain good employees. Because flexible working at home is no longer enough. Unilever, for example, has announced that their successful trial in New Zealand will now be rolled out in Australia. There are companies like Volkswagen that have been doing it for a while. Panasonic is doing it too. There are organizations like a bank in the UK that are doing it.

The 4-day week has evolved from a fringe idea in 2018 to one that has now entered the mainstream. It is not necessarily accepted by the mainstream, but it is clearly being discussed in the mainstream.

Kontrast: Would you say that there are mainly similarities or differences between the countries?

Well, I think in the 21st century, there are more similarities than differences between countries. As the world has, by and large, industrialized and developed, the problems you face in a country like Malaysia, Bangladesh, or India are in many ways no different from those you see in the US or the UK. Of course, that is not true for the whole economy. But I am pretty sure that the problems faced by many of the Bangalore-based tech companies are exactly the same as the problems faced by tech companies in Silicon Valley, for example.

I think that’s why the four-day week campaign has now reached about five and a half billion people worldwide.

We have talked about the four-day week in over a hundred countries. It is not something that is focused on the 27 European countries, North America, Australia, and New Zealand. In the course of our pilot project in South Africa, companies from four or five other African countries have also come forward and said they are interested in participating. This is not a Western world problem. It is much more than that.

Great Britain: Major Trial Shows Very Positive Result In Interim Report

Kontrast: When we talk about the process in the UK, the biggest process ever is now almost in its final stages. What do you expect next here?

We don’t have the results yet, of course, but in the midterm phase, we sampled some of the companies that participated in the study, and we got the usual results, which is that the overwhelming number of companies say, “This is really fantastic, and we’re going to keep it.” They see higher productivity, higher employee engagement, and lower employee stress.

I would be very surprised if the pattern of other attempts is not repeated. There are now probably thousands, if not tens of thousands, of companies around the world that have introduced a four-day week. And there is a consistent message coming from them. And if you think about it, it’s not surprising. I mean, who would have thought that healthier, happier, more rested and more engaged employees would be more productive… It’s obvious, right?

The 4-Day Week Brings Clear Competitive Advantage

Kontrast: Looking at the examples and trials, are there differences between the public and private companies?

At the end of the day, it is sometimes more difficult for a public company to introduce a four-day week because it has to get different stakeholders on board. In a private company, it can simply be decided by the owner of the company. But it can be done. There are now some local authorities that will try a four-day week, for example, South Cambridge Council in the UK. They have come under quite a bit of fire in the right-wing media, and they will be scrutinized. It’s a very brave move. I think they will prove that it works, but it takes a very committed council or local authority or government to do it.

I think that at the country level, you are starting to see that the global labor shortage is going to lead to governments increasingly asking themselves how they can make their region or state more competitive. An example of this is the Premier of the Australian state of Victoria, who has announced that if he wins the election, he will introduce the four-day week throughout the state of Victoria. This is his way of attracting talent to Victoria at the expense of other Australian states. So it’s becoming a competitive issue.

The biggest risk a country or a company can take now is that they will not introduce the 4-day week. Their biggest risk is that their biggest competitor does it first.

The first one to move gets the headlines, the recognition, the choice of employees—everyone else then has to catch up.

Rethinking the Way We Work

Kontrast: Would you say that the four-day week can also be implemented in the service sector, e.g., in the care sector, in schools, in the health sector? There are reservations that productivity cannot be increased there as easily as in industry or in the digital sector…

There are examples here too. 1,600 school districts in the United States have already introduced the four-day week. But I think the best answer to this question is a trial in the United Kingdom. There, surgeons at St Thomas’ Hospitals put together a medical team that was one and a half times the size of a normal medical team. They had two operating theaters, which they ran in tandem. In this way, they managed to perform a week’s worth of operations in one day because they were able to optimally utilize the capacity.

We could even introduce the three-day week with this model – with the same number of operations. If you think about it, it means rethinking healthcare.

We are a bit in the situation where people say, well, you can’t possibly do it. If you don’t believe that you can do it, if you believe that what we are doing today is the pinnacle of human achievement, you will never be able to improve.

But if you think there must be a better way, then we should reconsider. There are pioneers who show that the 4-day week is possible. For example, a restaurant chain in Spain or a fish and chips place in England. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily easy, but once you get people thinking differently, then all the possibilities open up.

Kontrast: So there are many examples that show that working time reduction in the service sector is possible, but is there also data that proves that it actually works well?

That’s why we are doing the pilot programs all over the world. I can tell you company after company that says, “We did this, and we have an improvement.” But the problem with that is that there is no standard method of analysis. So when we put the studies together—and that’s why we have a global research program—the idea is that we are able to measure in a consistent way the impact on companies and their employees. That way, we can get a global picture. When we have completed all these pilot programs, we will have very meaningful data that will show how it affects people—across cultures, countries, and industries.

People Only Productive for Three Hours a Day

Kontrast: You advocate the 100-80-100 model, which means 100 percent of the wage, 80 percent of the time, but for 100 percent of the productivity. Isn’t there a danger here that the compression of working time will lead to more stress, pressure, and dissatisfaction with the job?

The research results show that people are less stressed. In Unilever’s recent report on their study in New Zealand, the data suggests that people are talking about compressed working hours. But global research shows that people are actually only really productive for two and a half to three hours a day. So out of an eight-hour day, five hours are “fluff,” five hours while you are busy but not necessarily productive.

Statistically, you are interrupted every 11 minutes and need 22 minutes to become fully productive again. So if you give someone one hour of intensive work without being interrupted, that is equivalent to three normal time-outs.

If I skip one day, my other days are much more productive, and actually, I don’t even have to work every hour and every minute of the four days. I actually only have to spend 45 minutes of extra productivity on each of the four days to make up for the fifth day. So I work three hours and 45 minutes, and I still have four hours to hang out at the water cooler or go on the internet. So it’s not what people think. That’s because people think that when I’m at work, I’m fully productive.

Companies Should Inform Themselves and Try It

Kontrast: Have you already worked with companies or authorities in Austria?

Some companies in Austria have come forward. Some universities have also come forward that are interested in participating in the research.

Kontrast: So, what advice would you give to companies?

The real problem is often that companies think too much about it. A lot of companies say, “Well, maybe there were some difficulties with the implementation, but basically, it wasn’t as hard as we thought.” That’s why one of our first pieces of advice to companies is that they shouldn’t think too much about it. They often try to analyze everything and come up with a solution for everything. But it doesn’t work that way. If you think about it too much, you come up with all these reasons why it won’t work. The reality is that it does work. It’s much easier now because you have all the evidence that’s there. You just have to try it out. And then, staff have to find the things that are preventing them from being productive. It varies from staff member to staff member, from department to department.

And secondly, read the material because there is so much of it now that it is much easier to take the step than it was four years ago. And what’s the worst that can happen? If it doesn’t work, at least the staff will love you for it. So you will get something out of it, even if the only benefit is that you figure out how to measure productivity.

The Four-Day Week Is Good for the Economy, the Environment, and Our Health Care System

Kontrast: And what would you advise the Austrian government?

Why are they different? I mean, governments have the same problem. We all face the question of how to deal with mental health problems in the workplace. One in four is affected by it. How can we reduce our carbon footprint?

A study carried out in the UK says that switching to a four-day week in the UK would result in an emissions’ reduction equivalent to taking all UK car traffic off the road.

If people only work four days a week, you have fewer cars on the road. Then there are more opportunities for free traffic, less congestion, and that in turn leads to a higher GDP. So there is a virtuous circle here that governments need to keep an eye on.

And then we all struggle with how to finance our health care system. Because people are living longer, but they are getting sicker over a longer period of time. If you are healthier and happier, don’t eat junk food, have more time to exercise, and spend more time with your family, what do you think happens? The effects on health improve. You have more time to learn. This means you can help your employees get used to issues like artificial intelligence and the transformation of work. There are a lot of fantastic things that a government if it is willing to understand this, can actually do.

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