More days off? Time to consider new ways of working

By Jim Bright

It is holiday time around the country. As I write, we have the special public holiday for the late Queen on Thursday. If you live in Victoria, you get the Friday off too, and then for many there are school holidays. This meant, that for the majority we had a four-day week at most. Which, according to recent research might point to increased productivity.

A UK-based not-for-profit organisation, 4 Day Week Global, has just reported on the first three months of a six-month trial of a four-day week. More than 70 organisations signed up for the trial. This represented a sample of over 3300 employees. The sample covered most industry sectors and sizes of organisation. So far, the results appear to be impressive: 95 per cent of organisations who responded reported that their productivity was either unchanged (46 per cent), or had increased (49 per cent).

A four-day working week.
A four-day working week.

A whopping 97 per cent of responding organisations indicated that the transition to the four-day week was smooth to extremely smooth. This is also a potentially game-changing result because beyond the completely understandable concerns about productivity, employers are also likely to be worried about the disruption caused by such a radical change, and the associated costs of that disruption.

Overall, the vast majority (86 per cent) of responding organisations indicated that at this point in the trial, they are positively disposed to retaining the four-day week permanently.

Now clearly one can point to the self-selecting nature of the sample. One imagines that the organisations signing up were already at the very least open to the potential of a revised working-week. Whether this reflects the critical importance of management buy-in, or that the participating organisations had sufficiently flexible structural constraints to make a four-day week work, is not clear at this time. Further, I suspect that the productivity data will need monitoring over a longer period. What is clear is that the four-day week can work in a significant number of organisations with little or no negative impacts on productivity at least in the short term.

The organisational psychologist in me must always keep in mind the Hawthorne effect. Famously associated with an Australian psychologist, Elton Mayo, the study that commenced in the late 1920s, looked at the impact of differing lighting, rest breaks and the layout of the workspaces on the productivity of factory workers in an Illinois plant. It seemed that productivity improved regardless of the intervention.

The results have since been subject to multiple different interpretations, including that those being studied want to please their observers, or possibly the enhanced feedback afforded by a study is motivational. In short, one must always be careful and cautious when attributing positive changes at work to interventions that preceded the changes. As is so frequently the case, things are generally more complex.

At the very least, this interim report will provide encouragement for enlightened employers who are prepared to consider new ways of working that are likely to be attractive to employees. It contributes to the broader debate about the role of work in our lives, and whether the “economy” is there to work for us, or us to work for the economy.

Jim Bright, FAPS is professor of career education and development at ACU and owns Bright and Associates, a career management consultancy. Email to [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @DrJimBright

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