Remote working has helped companies around the world to stay open during the virus crisis. It's a key building block to build the case for reduced hours in the workplace, says an entrepreneur who say we are more productive when we work four days a week.
When Dolly Parton sang ‘Working nine to five — what a way to make a living’, she struck a chord with the many office workers who saw themselves as corporate slaves, chained to their desks for a large chunk of their lives.
However, in the four decades since that song was released, those hours are more like a pipe dream thanks to technology which ensures workers are always tethered to the workplace.
The current coronavirus crisis demonstrates the importance of a flexible approach to working. Like a growing number of people, businessman Andrew Barnes sees the traditional methods of office-based working as unsustainable, from a human and economic point of view. Except he has put his money where his mouth is.
The British entrepreneur’s epiphany came when he was on a plane trip and read an article in The Economist reporting on two studies of office workers in Britain and Canada, all of whom worked a standard five-day week. The research found that employees were only productive for 1.5 to 2.5 hours of a typical eight-hour day.
Barnes was “gobsmacked” and began to think that if each of his 240 employees was productive for an average 2.5 hours a day, then he only needed to claw back another 40 productive minutes per day to get the same output from staff in a four-day week as in a five-day week.
He decided to trial the flexibility model at his own financial services company in New Zealand, which was such a success he has become a standard-bearer and evangelist for the four-day week, imparting his experience all over the world and now publishing a book that encourages business to take up this revolutionary practice.
According to Barnes, the current crisis due to the spread of Covid-19, also demonstrates how employers and their staff can work together to find sustainable and flexible ways to keep their businesses afloat.
“The coronavirus crisis, which is enforcing the use of remote working and ways of engaging, will demonstrate to many businesses that employees can be trusted to deliver productivity without being in the workplace. This is an essential building block to how we have a reduced-hours workplace once this crisis has blown over,” says Barnes.
The process eliminates much of the unproductive busyness while reinforcing trust between employer and employees. Businesses which do this will have a better chance of surviving this temporary crisis and maintaining employment for their people.”
The idea of a four-day week has been gaining traction, with Finland’s recently elected prime minister, Sanna Marin, a proponent, and Ireland’s Social Democrats including it in their recent election manifesto. In terms of actual practice, Microsoft Japan found that when it tested a four-day week for the month of August last year, staff were not only happier, but productivity increased by about 40%.
“We actually waste a lot of time when we’re at work,” says Barnes.
“Things like the quiet hour where you can put a flag in a pot and not be disturbed for a period of time. Little adjustments like that make a big difference because when you respect other people’s time and they respect your time, you can get more things done.
“We know about these things, but I think half the problem is that people don’t really understand what the productivity of their business is. And they don’t really measure it — it is far easier to worry about when somebody comes in and when somebody leaves.”
Barnes undertook independent research on the four-day week before he implemented the policy in his own company.
“I had external stakeholders and I wanted to be able to point to some evidence elsewhere so that I could say to my board, and my private capital partner, ‘look, it’s not just me saying this, I’ve got this additional evidence’. Doing that was one of the reasons we got so much publicity. It was the fact that there was external validation — and that it worked — that really moved it up the agenda for people.”
In Barnes’ companies, staff don’t necessarily have to work a four-day week; instead, they follow the 100-80-100 rule — staff receive 100% of their pay, and work only 80% of the time, provided they deliver 100% of the agreed productivity. Not only were staff 20% more productive on the days they were working, but their engagement scores went up, stress levels went down, and staff were better able to handle their workload.
“They worked better as a team. A day off a week was way more important than [going on] Facebook. People changed their behaviours. A day off was a gift and had to be earned,” says Barnes.
Barnes has recently travelled to the United States to publicise his book and address businesses and MBA programmes. Is a four-day week a particularly hard sell in a country where a fortnight’s holidays a year is the norm?
But Barnes says change is in the air, particularly when it comes to large tech companies which are struggling to attract and retain the right staff.
“Microsoft trying it out in Japan has opened people’s eyes. It’s all well and good for a New Zealand company, a British company, or an Irish company to do the four-day week but it’s not American. So one of the developments when I was there was very interesting — [food chain] Shake Shack announced that some of their managers will go to a four-day week. And the reason they were doing that was they needed to be able to attract and retain good staff.
“Competition for staff is also enormous in the tech sector. People who are time-poor are likely to find a four-day week attractive. The first one of those firms that does a four-day week will have a competitive advantage because they will be changing the debate. And I think we will get that.
“If Microsoft decided to implement a four-day week globally, rather than just in Japan ... I think that would cause a revolution on the [US]west coast. And I think you would have company after company starting to implement the policy.”
Barnes has seen at first hand the huge difference one day can make to his staff; giving them more time to rest and reconnect also helps with anxiety and depression which have become major issues in our always-available society.
“People really value it. I have a chap working with me who takes two half-days a week to bring his granddaughter out and then they have tea together. When he tells that story, he cries. And that’s what this is about. It is so important because it’s making them better, not just in the workplace, but outside the workplace.”
The 4 Day Week: How the Flexible Work Revolution Can Increase Productivity, Profitability and Well-being, and Help Create a Sustainable Future, by Andrew Barnes with Stephanie Jones, is published by Piatkus, €16.