Four-Day Work Week Appears to Gain Traction, but What Don’t We Know?

In an ever-growing gig economy, many people prefer the flexible schedules — yet questions of practicality persist

Also known as the sharing economy, today’s gig economy includes co-working, ride-sharing, crowdfunding, couch surfing, and even peer-to-peer lending arrangements — among other types of exchange relationships.

The sharing economy relies on the internet to help connect customers and clients with providers, often undercutting traditional arrangements by looping out middlemen.

But flexible work arrangements are also gaining traction in more traditional industries, as C-suite execs link staff productivity to company profits. In New Zealand, for example, a firm that specializes in estate planning is claiming it’s broken new ground in the workplace by compensating employees for five days when they only work four.

The experiment took place during a six-week period, which began in early March of this year.

Perpetual Guardian found the change boosted productivity in its firm among its 240 employees — and it’s now considering making the four-day work week permanent, as The New York Times reported in a recent piece.

“If employees are engaged with their job and employer, they are more productive,” said Christine Brotherton, a manager at the firm, on its website. “We believe efficiency will come with more staff focus and motivation, and this trial is a valuable and timely way to test our theories.”

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Jarrod Haar, a human resources professor at Auckland University of Technology and one of two researchers enlisted to distill the results of the experiment, said employees reported a 24 percent improvement in their work-life balance. They came back to work energized after their days off, as The Times noted.

An internal survey that queried staff about productivity, along with global reports on worker productivity, inspired the company founder and CEO, Andrew Barnes, to conduct the experiment.

Especially revealing was a 2016 survey of 1,989 office workers in the U.K. It claimed the average office worker is only productive for two hours and 53 minutes out of each work day. That’s rather startling, of course.

Among the top distractions found were checking social media, reading news websites, chatting with co-workers about nonwork-related activities — and texting.

What’s more, on average office workers spend 26 minutes — nearly half an hour of each work day — looking for a new job.

“Juggling life and juggling work can be tricky,” Barnes told his staff in a YouTube video when announcing the four-day work week arrangement. “This is an important pact between you and [me],” he added. “I want to see productivity in this company go up.”

But others are quick to note that a mere six-week experiment could mean very little — and that a four-day work week would not cut it in certain industries, including construction, manufacturing and farming, to name just a few.

Related: ‘Worst Boss I Ever Had Taught Lessons I’ll Never Forget’

The conversation about the topic has been robust in recent days on LinkedIn.

“Once people get used to 4 days after several years, then 4 days will feel like 5 (like now 5 feels like 6) and the cycle repeats,” wrote one user after reading about the New Zealand experiment. “There is not enough data in 2 months to conclude anything of this magnitude actually works. It may work for life balance, of course; people like it and ‘feel’ more productive. However, to measure results, logically, you need more time. Why every time I read this kind of article [do] I feel the author is trying to teach me that country X is doing something right and we in the U.S. are doing it wrong? Perhaps [it] is just me.”

“Culture and leadership play a huge role in adopting nontraditional work environments.”

Noted another person on LinkedIn: “I think many [people] seem to get hung up on the time concept here. It’s not about the time spent at work; it’s about the level of productivity. Our culture likes to throw a badge of honor on the person who stays late and works weekends. Obviously this concept is case-by-case for different industries. However, being open to outside-the-box productivity boosters is essential for any business to run more effectively. I believe a part of running [a company] more effectively is employing people with a good life balance that will improve longevity.”

Related: How to Balance Work and Kids This Summer Without Going Crazy

Said still another: “My wife works compressed hours. She loves it! Every weekend is a long weekend … What’s not to like?”

Another user wrote that the concept might work “with the proper corporate culture and proper leadership at the team level — and that rules out most of the companies operating in the U.S. Culture and leadership play a huge role in adopting nontraditional work environments. Problem is, too many mid-level managers don’t have the skills needed to make this work to advantage due to a complete lack of mentoring and guidance from senior leadership. Just my opinion.”

Elizabeth Economou is a former CNBC staff writer and adjunct professor. Follow her on Twitter.

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