Reading Between the Lines on the 4-Day Work Week

Reading Between the Lines on the 4-Day Work Week 1024 512 Jason Lauritsen

Last week, Quartz published a piece about a New Zealand company that has implemented a 4-day work week policy.

This company offered the shortened work week without any reduction in pay or other benefits. They tested it and then implemented it broadly when they found that it didn’t cause any decrease in overall performance for the organization.

The owner of the company, Andrew Barnes, is bullish about these results and wants every company to try it. But, he offers some words of caution not to talk about this effort in terms of employee well-being. Instead, he advised that you talk about it in terms of productivity.

Here’s a quote from Barnes about how they rolled this out:

“We sat down with each team and we said, ‘Right, let’s agree what is the base of productivity that you’re delivering now,’” he says. “And then the deal was, provided you delivered on the productivity goals, you would be gifted a day off a week.”

This is a cool story. It highlights what is possible when organizations think differently about work.

Is this really about a 4-day week?

While I think it’s awesome that this company is proving that some of our assumptions about work (i.e. the 5-day work week) are limiting, I think the article is misleading for anyone who might want to pursue something similar in their own organization.

The 4-day work week is the kind of gimmicky silver-bullet we love to read about and debate. The gimmick is a distraction.

If you read between the lines, here’s what you find echoed in this article.

  • This company found that employees could produce the same amount of output in 4 days that they had been producing in 5.
  • When given this challenge (or opportunity) to work more effectively, employees stepped up. When surveying employees before and after the 4-day week trial, they “found that 78% of staff felt able to manage work and other commitments after the trial, compared to 54% before.”
  • The policy is less about a 4-day week than it is about autonomy and flexibility. The leaders essentially told employees that if they can get their work done in less hours, they could have those extra hours back.
  • And please don’t say this effort is about employee well-being if you want to be taken seriously because nobody (particularly leaders) cares about that. (Forgive my sarcasm, but this seems to be what they chose to lead with).
  • The key to making this transition happen swiftly is an owner or CEO who gets it or has a eureka moment.

My Take

Conversations about a shortened work week are colored by how we think about work. It highlights a fundamental conflict in management philosophy. The practice of management was born during the industrial revolution where the objective was primarily to maximize the productivity of employees per hour. A majority of organizations today are still rooted in this belief.

The objective of work processes is to motivate and/or coerce the maximum amount of productivity out of each hour the employee works. 

In this model, the number of hours the employee spends working is viewed as vital to achieving performance expectations. Your role as an employee is less about achieving specific outputs as it is about seeing how much you can contribute. The manager’s role is to get the maximum amount of value out of the employee.

This way of thinking is prevalent among leaders. It’s this way of thinking that makes the “discretionary effort” model of employee engagement so attractive. It’s oriented towards getting more and more out of the same investment in people–to maximize productivity for the benefit of the organization.

An alternative way of thinking about work is that employees are hired to fulfill specific roles with clear expectations for the value they contribute to the organization’s success. This role clarity drives compensation, management evaluation, and other work processes. This way of thinking about work might be summarized this way:

The objective of work processes is to ensure that employees are clear about the expectations of their role and that they have everything they need to succeed.  

In this way of thinking, a manager’s role isn’t to get the maximum about of productivity out of each employee. Instead, it’s about ensuring that each employee is crystal clear about what is expected of them and then supporting them in achieving those goals successfully.

If an employee can complete their work in less than 40 hours per week, good for her. She’s met her expectations, so what she does with those extra hours is up to her. If she’s able to do her work in 25 hours/week, then that likely means she’s either due for a more challenging role or the role she’s in is poorly designed. Or, maybe she’s just super efficient at her job and everyone’s happy.

These two very different ways of thinking about work are really what the discussion about the 4-day work week is truly about. If your leaders believe that their mandate is to create a workplace that extracts the maximum amount of productivity from employees, then you are dead in the water before you start.

I suspect that’s why the article led with the insight to talk about this effort as “productivity” and not well-being. The implication seems to be that perhaps you can trick your leaders into the 4-day work week. But, if you don’t address the underlying belief that the goal is to maximize employee output, how long do you think it will take before your leaders realize that if employees can be 20% more productive in four days a week, imagine the productivity if they get back that fifth day?

Instead of trying to trick your leaders into this experiment, focus instead on building a better system of performance management that clearly defines expectations and creates systems of measurement and feedback to help managers effectively manage to those expectations. Once your organization and its leaders are more clearly oriented around thinking of roles in terms of defined performance expectations, the conversation about greater autonomy and flexibility will become much easier.

P.S. This has everything to do with employee well-being, even if your leaders aren’t ready to invest in it yet.

 

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