Demystifying the seductive four-day workweek

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CHRO Day 2023 reveals that the four-day workweek is NOT a three-day weekend – it’s much more.

Nearly 100 years ago, Henry Ford did something revolutionary. He shortened the working week from six to five days without reducing people’s salaries, with the aim to make employees more productive because they would be better rested.

In the last few years, more and more people have started to wonder why he stopped at five, and so Andrew Barnes created 4-Day Week Global as a productivity experiment. He wanted to know if you reduce the working week by 20 percent without reducing people’s salaries, whether productivity would remain the same.

The experiment has led to 4-Day Week Global being named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential Companies in the world.

At the annual CHRO Day, CHRO South Africa MD Joël Roerig investigated what the four-day week pilot is revealing about the appetite for such a radical change in South Africa.

Challenge the status quo

“Would you agree that we’re experiencing a human energy crisis and that there needs to be more work-life balance?” 4-Day Week country director and head of global partnerships Karen Lowe asked the audience, who agreed unanimously.

“Do you agree that we have thriving and engaged workforces? Do we have measures in place to stop our young talent from leaving this continent? And is this sustainable?” she further provoked the audience, who resounded with “no’s”.

And finally, she asked whether there are leaders that are brave enough to challenge the status quo (a subject that had been touched on throughout the course of CHRO Day already), to which the room responded with a disconcerting “no”.

Karen reassured guests that there are ways to make sure there is an ecosystem where employees can still deliver on the triple bottom line and live meaningful lives at the same time. “However, in order to realise these benefits, it’s up to HR leaders to challenge the 100-year-old principle of work, and the time is now!”

The proof is in the pudding

Initially a sceptic herself, Karen embarked on a mission to prove to futurists that the four-day workweek model would not work in South Africa, but admits that the results of the trial have already proven her wrong – despite only being in its fourth month.

“They are embracing the understanding that in Africa, our biggest asset is our future and younger talent, and we need to create a workplace that is fit for them – not making them work to death and accept burnout as an occupational hazard like our generation had to.”

While the South African Pilot participants have not yet managed to reach that full 20 percent yet, Karen said the wellbeing scores are tracking almost identically to the international scores in organisations that have.

In fact, the results have been so positive that 4-Day Week has already started recruiting for a September pilot. “Global has also given us the mandate to spread this across the African continent.”

Busting the myths

Like with any new innovation, there are still a lot of misconceptions about what the four-day week actually entails, said Karen.

  1. It’s not a three-day weekend – this isn’t a Friday or a Monday off. It’s the reduction of an average work week by 20 percent.
  2. It’s not a switch – it’s a journey. The call to action for organisations is experimentation, not implementation.
  3. It’s not a cure for productivity issues – but it will bring them to the surface, giving you the ability to address them as a leader.

“This experiment takes all of the potential human energy deficits that you have in an organisation, shines a spotlight on them, and allows you to rebuild and reengineer the future of your workforce together with your staff,” she explained.

Step aside, leaders

The biggest learning so far is that this is not a management- and C-Suite-led initiative, Karen said. “The answer to making this work lies with the people who are actually doing the work, so you need to approach it from the bottom up.”

“If you can define to the business what peak productivity should look like, it’s up to your people to plan how they will deliver that at 80 percent of their time,” Kay added.

Karen explained that, because it’s an earned incentive and peer-driven, it means everyone’s time off is conditional on the rest of the team doing their bit. This means that there will be 100 percent buy-in from everyone, and that peers will hold each other accountable for that productivity.

“When we are planning projects now, people are already a lot more collaborative in figuring out who does what, when, between themselves,” Kay said excitedly. “So we, as a management team, have done very little. We just put our trust in our teams to deliver and only intervene when they need us to.”

Karen added that: “It’s important for your teams to understand that they co-create this, and therefore should have autonomy and a degree of self-management and ownership in the success of the experiment.”

3Verse strategic partner Kay Orlandi said 3Verse has been a “lab rat” for the four-day week model, and is currently busy piloting and experimenting with the concept. She explained that it has become a valuable tool for culture and talent retention.

“Everyone is much more open to having honest conversations about the challenges they are facing, because they want that day off. And everyone looks at how they can support each other through those challenges so they can all share in the benefit.”

She added that, because people are also singing praises about the initiative to their friends, 3Verse has suddenly seen flocks of CVs coming in.

Putting it to the test

“What was fascinating about the exercise was the appeal of having 20 percent of your life back for yourself,” she explained. “It’s more motivating and appealing for employees than money – in a way that they will move mountains to make it happen.”

She added that, along the way they had to adapt, shift and change the model to work with how the team operates, because there isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” solution to make it work for every organisation.

“We started off with half our team taking Friday off and the other half taking Wednesday off, and then they would swap the next month. Six weeks in, we realised that for some team members it worked better to take two half-days off, and so we started to build in the flexibility that everyone needed.”

She added that, during April, which is their busiest time of the year, 3Verse suspended the four-day week because they needed all hands on deck, but they resumed it again the month after.

Kay explained that the key part to making the model work was putting down a couple of non-negotiables:

Our clients weren’t allowed to feel the difference in our output – and they haven’t.

Everyone had to respect each other’s off-time, but at the same time had to be adaptable and flexible, because we were still figuring it out.

“You have to make sure everyone understands that it’s a partnership,” she explained. “If I create an environment where you are happy and flourishing, I would like you, out of respect for that partnership, to give me your best.”

In cases where people haven’t kept their end of the commitment, 3Verse removed the incentive and would only give it back when the person was delivering on the agreement.

No time to wait

Karen stressed that the future is now, and that if organisations don’t start experimenting now, the startups who have already begun will soon take over the market.

“Who waits to experiment?” she asked incredulously. “It is South Africa’s biggest opportunity to experiment now, because the more problems we have, the more agile and adaptive we can be, and the more solution-driven we are in a proactive way.”

However, Karen acknowledged that HR’s biggest challenge is selling this to their C-Suite colleagues. “When you start building a business case for this model, start by identifying where your organisational deficits are presenting. Look at what your absenteeism, staff turnover, recruitment, induction and talent pipeline costs are.”

Then, she explained, articulate a simple strategic case where the reduced working hours create an ecosystem that enhances productivity and revenue, and at the same time builds your organisation’s talent pipeline, creates an employer-of-choice proposition, and further down the line, will present triple bottom line advantages.

Kay added that, when HR leaders go to their boards, the best thing they can say is:

“I have a proposition for you that will help you save money, increase productivity and improve the quality of work – and you don’t have to do anything.”

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