The Covid-19 pandemic has made the world rethink the way in which we conduct business. Working from home or remotely anywhere has become widely accepted and encouraged. Instead of traveling to meet clients, Zoom calls have become standard. This holiday season, Cyber Monday has made the mob-mentality bum-rush into stores to score sale items seem barbaric—compared to purchasing items online at Amazon. It’s reasonable to now take a close look into the amount of time spent working and if there is a better way to achieve a work and life balance.
It’s pretty obvious that many people are under severe duress. People are struggling to juggle their jobs, provide child care and serve as teachers to help their children with online schooling. Studies show that workers are logging onto their computers for longer hours at home and working weekends.
While management presumed employees would coast or goof off, the reality shows that they are spending more time laboring away. This can be attributed, in part, to worries about losing their jobs, as millions of people have already been put out of work. Stress levels are high, alcohol and drug usage is growing at a disturbingly high pace and people claim that they’re experiencing feelings of depression and suicidal thoughts. It may be the right moment to reevaluate the workday.
Unilever, a British multinational consumer goods company, headquartered in London, has embarked upon a test of the four-day workweek. The food and consumer-staples giant chose New Zealand as the test-case location. This study is the natural progression of experimenting with different types of work and life accommodations.
The trial starts in December and will run for a year. There are about 81 employees in the island country of New Zealand, off of Australia. The employees will be compensated for a full five days, although they’re only working for four. Nick Bangs, the managing director of Unilever in the country, said, “We hope the trial will result in Unilever being the first global company to embrace ways of working that provide tangible benefits for staff and for business.” The company wants to alter the manner in which work is accomplished.
Bangs won’t increase the hours to compensate for the lost day of work. He said the company will have “compressed schedules with full pay, as the University of Technology Sydney in Australia helps track their progress.” The managing director stated, “We don’t want our team to have really long days, but to bring material change in the way they work.” After 12 months, the company will assess the situation and consider rolling it out to its over 150,000 employees around the world.
During the pandemic, New Zealand was the poster child for successfully managing the disease. As part of its strategy, the concept of an abbreviated workweek was discussed. It was noted that financial services firm Perpetual Guardian implemented a shortened workweek last year and claimed that it was well-received by its 250 workers. Andrew Barnes, the founder of Perpetual Guardian, said about the experiment, “For us, this is about our company getting improved productivity from greater workplace efficiencies.” Barnes added, “There’s no downside for us.”
Unilever’s strategy makes a lot of sense. Instead of rolling out the program with tens of thousands of workers, the company is starting small to see how it plays out. Presumably, if there is success, measured by productivity and worker happiness, it could then be rolled out to a little larger location. After testing this second location, it could then be brought to an even greater demographic.
There have been prior attempts of shortened workweeks that showed some mixed results. Sanna Marin, now the prime minister of Finland, previously proposed truncating the amount of time people spent at the office. Marin put forth the idea of companies adopting a flexible six-hour day or a four-day workweek. Marin said, “I believe people deserve to spend more time with their families, loved ones, hobbies and other aspects of life, such as culture. This could be the next step for us in working life.” While Marin’s plan was met with great fanfare, it never seemed to get off the ground.
Digital Enabler, a small German-based e-commerce company, experimented with an abbreviated work schedule. CEO Lasse Rheingans wanted to test his theory that if an employee intently focuses on their job without distractions, they could complete their tasks within a five-hour work period of time.
This came with a little catch. Rheingans ran a tight ship and required phones to be locked away during the day, social media was prohibited, interoffice small talk and getting in touch with family and friends outside of the office was forbidden. At first, the employees were pleased. As time progressed, they felt pressured to accomplish their assignments in less time, deprived of outside contact and uncomfortable working nonstop without any real breaks.
San Diego’s Tower Paddle Boards tried a five-hour workday. Stephan Aarstol, the company’s CEO, penned a piece in Thrive Global, extolling the virtues of a shortened work day. “Just because you’re at your desk for eight hours doesn’t mean you’re being productive. Even the best employees probably only accomplish two-to-three hours of actual work. The five-hour day is about managing human energy more efficiently by working in bursts over a shorter period,” Aarstol wrote. He claimed that having less time creates periods of heightened productivity and a five-hour workday is forced time management.
Similar to the outcome at Digital Enabler, Aarstol later admitted the experiment was initially a success, but then the employees enjoyed their time off a little too much. He changed the program to only the summer months. Aarstol lamented that the work ethic suffered and the company lost its startup culture.
Microsoft Japan experimented with a shorter work program, called “Work-Life Choice Challenge 2019 Summer.” The company gave its 2,300 employees the opportunity to “choose a variety of flexible work styles, according to the circumstances of work and life.” The goal of management was to see if there would be a corresponding increase in productivity and morale when hours are cut down.
Japan, similar to the United States, exemplifies a strong culture of hard work. Employees also demonstrate a strong devotion to their company.
The results of the experiment indicated that workers were happier and there was also a 40% gain in productivity. You may, however, have to question the veracity of the self-reports. Workers may have tried to make the project successful so that they could have a permanent four-day workweek. The 40% productivity may not be realized once the shortened workweek is officially established and, subsequently, taken for granted.
These examples all took place in the pre-Covid-19 time period. The world has dramatically changed since then. Both corporate leaders and workers have come to grips with the frailty of life. They’ve all seen how quickly a person could succumb to a previously unknown disease.
Working from home, people appreciated the ability to spend more quality time with family and loved ones and less time sitting in an office cubicle, located in an overcrowded, expensive, dirty city, requiring a two-hour-plus round-trip commute. Management recognizes that if its employees are happier, they’ll perform better. They also appreciate the benefits associated with a remote-work life.
This may indeed be the exact right time to try the shortened workweek, which has the potential to dramatically improve the quality of lives for millions of people around the world.