Kiwi firm to test four-day work week

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Workers' salaries will remain the same and the length of the workday will not be increased over the course of the six-week period. Photo: Getty Images

Monday to Friday has long been the typical work-week experience, but one New Zealand business is questioning whether this status quo should persist.

In March, Perpetual Guardian, a firm which deals with wills and trust funds, will introduce a four-day week for a period of six weeks across the business of over 200 staff in a bid to measure what impact this will have on productivity within the company.

Workers' salaries will remain the same and the length of the workday will not be increased over the course of the six-week period.

"We have seen cases where employees work longer hours for fewer days of the week or they earn 75% of their full-time salary, but that is not what we are doing here," says Perpetual Guardian founder Andrew Barnes.

Perpetual Guardian head of people and capability Christine Brotherton pointed to international research showing a correlation between employee engagement and productivity.

"If employees are engaged with their job and employer, they are more productive," Brotherton said.

"This is why we are adopting this trial. We believe efficiency will come with more staff focus and motivation."

Brotherton said there is a growing demand among staff for greater flexibility and this is a step in that direction.

In a recent internal survey at Perpetual Guardian, 80% of staff said they were happy with the levels of flexibility when it came to annual leave, but this number dropped to 72% when they were asked whether they saw their work arrangements as flexible. The figure was even lower, at 66%, when staff were asked whether they could give equal priority to work and family life and still be considered for a promotion.

"This raises a number of questions for us," Brotherton said.

"How can we energise our staff to be more productive and innovative in what we do and how we do it? How can we make our measurements of productivity clearer and easier to report on? How can we draw on our good levels of engagement to empower people to lift their productivity and to provide a great place to work?"

Brotherton doesn't expect to get all the answers she's looking for from the trial, but she does believe it could guide the company toward increasing engagement and thereby productivity in the workforce.

The trial could also perhaps have implications for the broader New Zealand workforce. According to research from the World Economic Forum, New Zealand ranked 20th among OECD countries in terms of the number of hours worked annually.

New Zealand workers put in 1,752 hours over the course of 2016, well ahead of the 1,363 hours put in by the Germans.

Other countries on the lower end of the scale included Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and France.

Despite enjoying the shortest working hours among OECD member countries, Germany manages high productivity levels, with data showing a German worker to be 27% more productive than his or her British counterpart (who works 1,676 hours a year).

Perpetual Guardian's move also comes off the back of the news this week that German metal workers had won the right to a 28-hour workweek for up to two years - a seven-hour reduction on the standard 35-hour work week.

In Germany, the unions remain a powerful force in the corporate environment, continuing to play a major role in protecting worker rights.

In a recent interview with Freakonomics, Princeton economist Uwe Reinhardt said that the German approach to unions differed quite substantially from that used in Anglo-Saxon countries.

Reinhardt said that union members often sit on company boards, working alongside decision makers to ensure there is a balance between profit and worker wellbeing.

In further elaborating on this point, he used the metaphor of a shared bowl that both workers and bosses are required to eat from. He said the German union members understood intrinsically that their actions should not lead to destroying the bowl.

"We have to make sure that the bowl is there," Reinhardt said, speaking from the perspective of the union.

"We can fight all we want, but don't spill the bowl. You don't destroy your company. That was not the attitude of Anglo-Saxon unions, either in England or the US."

The question then, is what is the state of the bowl in New Zealand corporate relations?

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