Can less work equal more output? A conversation with Andrew Barnes, co-founder of the 4 Day Week Global movement

A lot of businesses accept that working longer doesn’t necessarily mean working harder – there’s been a focus on presenteeism for the last 10-20 years – but in this era of flexibility some are going a step further to see whether working less could actually improve staff performance.

A recent report from AON found that employee burnout is most prevalent in the Asia-Pacific region and one of the top five employee wellbeing issues faced globally. From shorter core hours for international teams to 4-day weeks, many large global organisations are considering what they can do. According to job website ZipRecruiter, job listings that mention a four-day working week have tripled in the last 3 years to 62 per 10,000.

With that in mind, I think it’s a good time to share my conversation with Andrew Barnes who has co-founded the 4 Day Week Global movement.

Why did you decide to start the 4-day work week movement?

We implemented the 4-day work week in our company back in 2018. We were trying to answer a simple question, which was ‘Is productivity in my business as good as I think it is?’

We implemented this thing with the idea that we were going to pay people 100% of their pay for 80% of their time, provided we got 100% productivity.

I expected to get an article in The New Zealand Herald talking about this or maybe a little snippet on television. Instead we got a complete firestorm. I’ve been interviewed by people in 96 countries. Companies all over the world reached out to ask us to help them implement a 4-day work week.

So this isn’t about the western world or English speaking world, it’s about an issue of overwork that is impacting the workforce globally.

How does a 4-day working week shape the way people work?

Often businesses are guilty of using time as a surrogate for output. But we focus on output as a measurement, not the amount of time that you spend. As part of the trial, one of the very first things you do is sit down with your staff and say ‘What is it you do in a week and how can we measure that?’

When you have an honest conversation with your staff like this it tells you what the output is and interestingly at the same time your workforce starts to identify what it is they’re doing in a day that isn’t effective – that is busy work or work avoidance.

What do businesses stand to gain from trialling a 4-day work week?

If you look at the companies that have adopted this policy around the world, their productivity has gone up and it’s gone up materially – on average somewhere between 25-50% depending on the company. So you’re getting more overall output out of your workplace.

The next thing you get is loyalty and engagement, because underlying the 4-day work week is trust and understanding. The only people who can tell you how to do a 4-day work week are your staff – so you’re getting a bottom-up process that’s fit for purpose.

At the same time you’ve got people being listened to who are able to articulate new ideas. That improves your empowerment, engagement and enrichment scores. It improves your team building scores and your resilience scores. Essentially what you end up with is a very engaged and loyal workforce.

On top of that is a more efficient workforce that takes less days off. Sick days go down, staff turnover goes down and your ability to attract new employees goes up. This is all about creating an environment that actually makes the workplace better.

What holds businesses back from taking on a 4-day work week?

A chief executive is in that position because they are a leader and a problem solver. The natural reaction of companies is to try and design what the 4-day work week looks like from the top down. If you try and do that it will generally fail. Because this isn’t about changing process, it’s actually about changing behaviour. The people who will change your behaviour are your workforce.

A 4-day work week is also not a silver bullet for poor workforce culture. If you’ve got a poor workforce culture and you decide to do this, your employees will probably view it as a signal you’re going to start cutting jobs. You’ve got to make sure you’ve got the correct level of trust between leaders and employees.

The final issue is that you’ve also got to have leadership that can walk the talk. Your mid-rank executives and leadership will view this with a combination of alarm and scepticism because it’s not how they understand the game is played. They had to work 5 days a week and sacrifice a lot of things to get themselves to the position that they enjoy. There’s a part of them that wants to see their employees go and do that same process. So leadership has to be honest and recognise that they have to overcome those issues if they’re going to be successful.

What are some of the common objections you get?

As a leader you’re having to handover an element of how your business works to your employees and trust them to come up with effective solutions. That is a very confronting thing in my experience.

Some people struggle to comprehend that this doesn’t involve increasing staff by 20%. In some instance there may well be more staff, but provided the output you get from each individual is at least as good as it was before it doesn’t cost you anything.

Also, what we’re talking about is reduced hours working. A lot of companies don’t quite understand this. They say, ‘Well we couldn’t close on a Friday.’ Well we don’t. In our company some people work a 4-day week while others work 5 days but take 2 afternoons off. So we’re talking about working 80% of your normal working time. The beauty of that is it can also apply to part time work.

What’s the future of the movement?

The next thing that’s going to happen is our global campaign launch. We’re asking people all over the world to call for the 4-day working week from companies and governments. We’re encouraging leaders to join with us and say, ‘We’ll at least give it a try to see if it’s going to work.’

With enough companies participating in a 4-day working week trial we will be able to do randomised research, this is what’s been missing up until now. We’ll have the opportunity to look at the broader macro impacts of what it means to not only the company but society by bringing in place a 4-day working week.

Covid-19 has accelerated the changes many businesses were going through and meant other businesses are willing to try things they may never have considered. If you would like a confidential discussion about which solutions are working well for employers, contact Phil Davis, Managing Director, Q Consulting Group on 0404 803 609 or at phil.davis@qconsultinggroup.com.au