Case Study 04. Dr Helen Delaney
Dr Helen Delaney is a senior lecturer in the Department of Management and International Business at The University of Auckland. This is a summary of her findings based on Perpetual Guardian’s Four-Day Week trial.
Involve employees in all aspect of the design and implementation of the flexible working-hours initiative.
Ensure new policy is supported and resourced by harnessing new forms of technology, work organisation and communication.
Give employees the space, support and the invitation to think about ways in which they can work more smartly.
Recognise that flexible working initiatives aren’t magic bullets but rather just one step towards creating better workplaces, communities and societies.
Full interview with Dr Helen Delaney
I first heard about Perpetual Guardian’s Four-Day Week trial when the company approached The University of Auckland Business School enquiring about researchers to follow their Four-Day Week trial.
In my research and in my teaching, one of the broader social questions I’m interested in is the role of work in addressing some of the intractable issues we’re confronting as a society. One of the most important is the quality of our working life and how it ripples out into how we experience family life, community life and social life.
So the idea of an organisation-led experiment into reducing work hours, not only for an economic benefit but also for a social benefit, was really interesting to me and something that I wanted to follow from a qualitative perspective.
One of the things that really struck me when I came in to speak to the senior managers was the degree to which they were guided by the idea of involving all employees in the design and implementation of the trial. There are many different ways organisations can implement reduced work-hour initiatives, but what was important for Perpetual Guardian was to wholeheartedly involve the people who would be impacted.
From the get-go there was a principle of workers having a say in terms of how they were going to implement the policy, how they were going to work differently and how they were going to organise their time differently.
To analyse the impact of the trial I ran a series of focus groups with employees from across all areas and all levels of the company and spoke to them about their experiences.
One of the biggest impacts of the trial was how it created more collaborative social relations between employees, with many saying they felt like they had to help each other out and share their work. They spoke of the need to ‘have each other’s backs’ in order to make the new policy work, and how this was a shift from how they usually worked which was much more of an individual role.
This interdependency even extended to managers, who talked about learning to rely upon their teams and to delegate more of their tasks. One outcome of this was an increase in the level of respect and appreciation managers had for their teams.
Many employees also spoke of increased levels of intellectual stimulation and creativity during the trial. They used phrases like having to ‘switch our minds on’ and talked about having to think much more deeply about how they worked and how they could do things differently.
A number of employees said the trial had helped increase their confidence and help they have more say over how they worked. Some felt more confident about making decisions and being proactive - a sentiment echoed by management.
Goodwill and confidence
The other way in which the experiment changed the work experience was through an improvement in goodwill and a feeling that employees were more than just a ‘cog in the machine’. Employees said they felt more valued by the company, and this was reciprocated by employees wanting to go the extra mile and to give more of themselves at work.
It also encouraged a sense of give-and-take, meaning that even on their days off they were happy to take calls or do some emails in order to make the trial work. Some employees did report a sense of increased urgency and pressure by trying to get through five days of work in four. These workers felt they were under heightened pressure and so by the time it came to their ‘rest day’ they were more exhausted than normal and needed an extra day for recuperation.
Some also reported a degree of increased friction at work arising from work intensification measures such as shortened meetings and coffee and meal breaks. They were working harder and smarter, but often there wasn’t additional resourcing to help with the new work pace.
Quality of life
They did, however, look forward to their extra day off and the extra quality of life it brought outside of work. Employees said they had become more involved with family, friends and community and with extracurricular learning. They also spoke of reconnecting with old hobbies and taking better care of themselves.
People reported living a fuller existence, with many enjoying their extra day off in a different way to their regular weekend. Many spoke of the pure indulgence of having time ‘to myself’ without children, husbands or wives at home.
Overall, most people enjoyed the quid pro quo of giving more of themselves at work because they knew they were getting the chance at a fuller life as well. But there was a minority who preferred to return to a five-day week and be able to experience a slower pace at work.
What we learned from the Perpetual Guardian trial as well as work-time reduction policies overseas is that how you design and implement these types of policies is crucial to their success. In particular, employees need to have a say in how they going to work differently and when they’re going to work differently.
If management adopts a top-down approach to redesigning work rosters and work tasks, there’s a real risk of creating some disgruntlement. The process also needs to be supported and resourced by the organisation by harnessing what new forms of technology, work organisation and communication have to offer.
If there is the will from management, workers, unions and government, these types of work-time reduction policies could work across most industries and within most work groups. At the same time, it’s important to recognise that they aren’t a magic bullet that will help you arrive at some sort of productivity and personal satisfaction nirvana but rather are one step towards creating better workplaces, communities and societies.
What we have learned through this trial is that if you give employees the space, support and the invitation to think about ways in which they can work more smartly for fewer hours that will simultaneously benefit the worker, the organisation and the wider society.