Organisational benefits do not happen by chance, and managers and owners had to adapt their leadership style and behaviours to foster a more productive environment, writes Mark Smith.
With the first findings of the four-day week pilot in for South Africa, it joins many countries around the world who have tested this working time innovation.
While the employee benefits from the trials have been trumpeted and the number of organisations continuing with four days remains very high, there are some misconceptions.
Is this just all about a free Friday? Here are 10 things you perhaps did not know.
Employees are not paid the same for doing less.
The four-day week is working fewer hours on average with the principle of 100-80-100™ – employees do 100% of their work in 80% of their time and receive 100% of their pay. The traditional working week has remained rather sticky around 40 hours for almost 100 years and, in principle, this means a shift on average nearer 32 hours. The pilot in South African found a weekly average of nearer 36 hours, but around the world we find many employees do indeed work closer to 32 hours per week.
Companies do not have to shut on a Friday.
In South Africa, only a quarter of organisations worked Monday through Thursday as this this type of arrangement is impractical for most organisations with continuous operations or long service hours. For organisations with “normal” or continuous hours, the employees managed to work shorter hours, more efficiently, and service continued as before with flexible staff rostering, which fitted the needs of employers and employees.
It needs a vision and a plan.
One of the surprising outcomes was that it is perhaps more useful to think of a four-day week as a managerial vision to promote productivity, better use of resources, review procedures, and manage better. Such a change needs careful planning and a review of processes and standing operating procedures. Some of the managers even spoke of a paradigm shift in the way they think about work and a focus on outputs and tasks rather than time spent in the office in front of a computer.
A lever for change.
We found leaders had taken a fundamental look at the resources they have, how they used them and challenged existing practices at work. Organisational change is a pain point for many organisations with a wide body of research on the difficulties, failures and an army of consultants trying to help. For many of those organisations succeeding at the four-day week there seems to be a different sense of purpose to change which incorporates both managers, owners, and employees. In short, they are willing supporters of change rather than sceptics.
Boosting productivity by working differently.
The organisations succeeding in the four-day week trial achieve similar or better outputs with all or most of their employees working shorter hours. Something changes in terms of productivity. The short answer is that these organisations are working smarter. Initially they have cut out slack and wasted activities, for example long meetings, excessive email and wasted time, but beyond that there has been a change in quality of work for some, particularly those in knowledge-intensive activities.
Leadership is paramount.
The organisational benefits do not happen by chance and the managers and owners of the organisations adapted their leadership style and behaviours. Already the managers and owners joining the four-day trial have self-identified as more innovative and at least have a tendency towards experimentation and innovation. The leadership started with getting buy-in, communicating the benefits and what would be required, and influencing across the organisation. But this leadership also included managers leading by example, coaching their employees in how to prioritise and encouraging trust and autonomy where before there may have been under surveillance. They also lead their teams to find quick solutions to problems, after all most people want to protect the proverbial fifth day!
It facilities technological advances.
Organisations frequently face resistance and challenges in the roll out of new technologies. However, one of the consistent findings of the study on successful organisations was a significant change and adoption in the use of technology. This included the use of existing technology that was previously not fully deployed, the wide acceptance of software packages to speed up and share work, and managers using more dashboards to keep up to date. User acceptance is often a key barrier to any tech project but if employees have some ‘skin in the game’ for it to work (four days) they seem to become allies.
Quality of time is as important as quantity.
Organisations in the study noted that employees were working more efficiently but also there was engagement through greater autonomy and responsibility. In addition, the rested employees were not only less burnt out but in the creative occupations they had time to be creative – a key differentiator for some of the organisations in the study. Meanwhile managers, who necessarily needed to delegate more, had time to look over the horizon at more strategic issues.
Promoting deeper managerial reflection.
One of the other unintended consequences of the four-day week was managers reflecting on their own roles. The four-day week requires a greater level of autonomy and trust, and for managers to delegate their work and admit that they are perhaps prone to micro-managing. One of the reflections some managers reported was that they realised for the four-day week that they were the bottleneck holding back some progress or processes in the organisation and getting in the way of others doing their work.
There are unintended consequences.
Any change will lead to consequences that may not have been planned for. Some of these consequences are positive but not all – that’s life. We found some organisations needed to reconsider how to manage leave arrangements in terms of how it was accumulated and spent. Also, some developed new policies on how to manage the fifth day when an employee is sick, in weeks with a public holiday, or if an employee goes on leave for only part of the week. The researchers also found it helped to communicate clearly about what happens if in the future there is an urgent crisis at work or productivity declines.
There are also other research findings for employees including better wellbeing, health, happiness, reduced sick leave, improved work climate, and better retention of talent but these are perhaps more familiar with four-day week watchers and have been identified many times elsewhere in the world.
Overall, for those organisations succeeding, what the four-day week seems to offer is a rare win-win for employers and employees. It is of course important to note that this is not a panacea to all organisational challenges, there will never be such as thing, but it is certainly not every day we find employees and employers positive about changes in their workplace.
Prof Mark Smith is the outgoing Director of Stellenbosch Business School and led the Stellenbosch Business School research team during South Africa’s first Four Day Work Week trial. For the South African results visit https://www.4dayweek.com/sa-2023-pilot-results.
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