The four-day week seems impossible — an employee’s dream.

By business reporter Daniel Ziffer, ABC, 20 March 2023

Liz Indrans 2

So why is it working?

Liz Indrans works four days a week and would not change a thing.(ABC News: Sean Warren)

When Liz Indrans found out her work was going to a four-day week model, she was torn.

Key points:

  • A UK trial paid workers 100 per cent of their wage for 80 per cent of the hours
  • More than 61 businesses took part, with 56 continuing with the pattern of work
  • A Senate report has called on Australian governments to trial the scheme with public servants

“I thought: ‘Amazing!’ Selfishly, I was like, ‘This is a great idea’,” she said.

But the operations manager of design agency Your Creative has 18 staff and needs to get five days’ work out of them every week to make the business work.

“How are we going to actually make this work? I was a little bit overwhelmed. Excited for my own personal time, but then kind of curious about how it would work for our office.”

Success in the UK trial

Many businesses in Australia and overseas have experimented with a four-day week, but it’s not about squeezing the standard 40 hours of most office workers into four days.

Most trials have focused on radically reducing working time to around 32 hours a week and letting employees work them over four days.

Alyssa Shaw, campaign co-director for 4 Day Week Australia, calls it the “100/80/100” model.

“100 per cent of the pay, 80 per cent of the hours and 100 per cent commitment to the same productivity.”

Alyssa Shaw 2Ms Shaw says the four-day week works for everyone, even teachers and nurses.(ABC News: Sean Warren)

The end of a six-month trial of 61 UK businesses – across 2,900 employees at everything from large firms to a fish-and-chip shop – has given weight to what has previously been individual companies taking up the idea.

“It gives so many benefits to workers, to business and to the environment. We’ve seen in the UK trial that there’s been a huge number of benefits,” she said.

Companies found big drops in employees quitting (57 per cent down) and absenteeism (65 per cent down), with employees more satisfied, less “burned out”, and healthier.

Revenue was 35 per cent higher in the six-month trial period compared to a comparison period six months earlier, although not all the companies in the study provided that financial data.

But it cannot have been disastrous: 95 per cent of the companies are continuing the trial in some form, and a third of those participating have made the scheme permanent.

“There was a significant reduction in burnout and stress; sick days went down, profits went up. And there were great benefits as well for carers and families… so it’s a win-win for everyone.”

‘We really need to play catch-up’

Watching the UK trial closely was senator Barbara Pocock, chair of the Select Committee on Work and Care, as she drafted its final report examining how work works in this country.

“Our arrangements for working life in Australia are built on the assumptions of the last century,” she said.

“We’ve got a 20th-century set of labour laws, but we’re a 21st-century workforce. One in two workers are women, four out of 10 workers are responsible for someone else while they’re on the job. We really need to play catch-up.”

The report has recommendations about transforming “childcare deserts” by building 100 centres in areas where they are lacking, reviewing access to respite for carers, increasing parental leave to a year, and looking at sick pay and annual leave for casual and part-time workers.

Also on the list, the committee’s report recommends the federal government undertake a trial of the four-day week across different sectors and parts of the country.

“We led the world on movements towards the shorter working week; we led the world on a minimum wage last century,” she said, pointing to the eight-hour day pioneered by Melbourne stonemasons in 1856.

A painting of an “Eight-hour day” rally in Melbourne, dated 1907.(State Library of Victoria)

“But the market and shortages of labour are not driving fast enough the kinds of changes that working carers – and our kids and the older people that we need to look after – need.”

Research presented to the committee suggests that expanding workforce participation – the number of people able to work – would boost the goods and services that Australia produces (our gross domestic product or GDP) by billions.

While these suggestions are not new, Senator Pocock wants people to consider recent history – and how radical ideas can seem normal very quickly.

“When workers and employers thought about stopping work on a Saturday in the 1940s, everyone thought the sky would fall. How could this possibly work? How could it possibly be a good thing?” she said.

“But here we are, used to a five-day week, Monday to Friday. The sky won’t fall. It’s not falling in the workplaces that are already experimenting with [four-day weeks], and the more experience we have of this, the more believable it becomes.”

Killing meetings and less email

Your Creative is part of an ongoing Australian trial, but managing director Lauren Crystal has already confirmed to staff they will be continuing with the four-day model when it ends.

“If you have a fresher mind, you get a better output,” she said.

“We have officially decided that we are never going back to five days a week; I definitely wouldn’t personally, and I know the rest of the team agrees.”

But working out how to do it has not been easy.

Lauren CrystalMs Crystal is part of a six-month Australian trial of the four-day week at various companies.(ABC News: Sean Warren)

“We asked everyone individually: what could you do to be more efficient? And can you share it with the team?”

One of the first things to happen was Ms Crystal killed the long morning meetings she chaired. Another change is that just 10 per cent of staff now use email. At all.

The rest of the staff, who do not deal with clients, do not even have work email accounts. Most communication is done by talking, using either their voices or via an internal chat system.

“They’re just creating,” she said.

Half the staff take Wednesdays off, the other half Friday – so the office remains open for clients. Productivity has leapt 20 per cent, meaning the day off is covered, and revenue has risen. The Melbourne-based business has also seen a rocketing rate of interest in its job ads.

‘Everyone doesn’t want to look back’

Ms Crystal understands the potential cynicism; getting five days of work done in just four. But after suffering burnout in big tech jobs before starting the business, she is focused on the work-life balance of her and her staff.

Working out how to do it is not easy, but that is part of the benefit too, she said.

“It’s a journey of streamlining your business. Opening the guts up and seeing what could be better, which is fantastic for anyone to do. And then taking the leap and having that trust there.”

Ms Indrans said she was “less overwhelmed” since the shift, with more time to think.

“You don’t realise that you do some of your work outside of work; that kind of unconscious thinking. I take Wednesday off, and in the back of my mind, I’m still kind of thinking about work, not in a bad way, just like reflecting on things,” she said.

“It means I can come back on a Thursday really refreshed and more keen to do the work.

“Now that we’ve started it, everyone just doesn’t want to look back. They can’t imagine working five days again.”