The push for flexible working conditions is set to grow with a candidate-driven market inspiring employers to change their incentives to attract top talent. We look at recent trials and what employers and employees think.
Engaged employees, less sick leave, higher productivity and a happier workforce are all compelling arguments for the introduction of flexible working conditions within the workplace, and yet it seems many employers continue to resist this push.
The topic received a lot of media attention earlier this year with an eight-week trial of a four-day working week at New Zealand trust company Perpetual Guardian.
All full-time employees out of a workforce of 245, including senior managers, were encouraged to take part in the four-day-week trial – or iterations thereof – during the period, without a pay cut.
Perpetual Guardian’s Head of People & Capability Christine Brotherton explained how company founder Andrew Barnes initiated the trial after reading research that indicated productivity in the workforce can be as low as one-and-a-half hours each day.
“While these findings are not new, they are still shocking, and Andrew wanted to explore the reasons why productivity can be so limited,” Brotherton told The Brief.
“He started wondering if we can give staff a more balanced life, without changing client experience or reducing profitability. Essentially, he’s giving us the opportunity to think differently about productivity by trying not to associate it with hours worked.”
Brotherton explained that the four-day trial – held between March 5 and April 27 – was initially slated as a six-week trial but the company was keen to collect more data so it could be assessed to determine whether the trial was a commercial success.
She said the trial, for some, meant working five shorter work days, for others it was four days each week and others still would organise days off around their work schedules. For those choosing the four day week, teams were left to work out the logistics, with the only parameters being client service remained high and business hours were unchanged.
“As we made it a staff-led trial, all staff were able to make their own decisions about how to make it work for them,” Brotherton said. “Some people and teams have really embraced and flourished with the four-day week, while other teams have decided that coming in later and leaving earlier (to beat traffic) were their preferred flexibility option.
“We wanted staff to feel empowered to design their four-day working week themselves around what works best for them and their teams’ workflows.”
Brotherton said there had been “real enthusiasm” to make the trial work.
“Since the trial started, we have noticed that people seem more energised and have seen more collaboration across teams,” she explained. “We’ve seen more focus while at work and a real sense of pride in trying something innovative and challenging. Families have been very supportive.
“Many of our management staff have also seen a lot of value come from the trial, in getting to know their team better and identify how individuals and teams work better.”
The company is now reviewing and analysing the productivity measures that were set at the start of the trial. Professor Jarrod Haar (AUT), Dr Helen Delaney and Professor James Sun (Auckland University Business School) are conducting their research on the impact of the trial on employee engagement and wellbeing.
The results of this analysis will determine if there is a business case for the introduction of flexible working arrangements for Perpetual Guardian’s staff on an ongoing basis. The results were unavailable at the time of publication.
Brotherton, who works flexibly on a part-time basis, said early indicators were that the trial was proving successful in terms of the goodwill and reciprocity created with staff.
“Some early signs that we observed during the trial have been positive, and that a number of our teams have been able to keep productivity at the same level (or increased) with the trial,” she said.
“We’ve seen great results from teams who have been questioning and challenging existing work practices and trialling new ways of working. We think there will be lots of opportunity for this across our entire business after the trial finishes. Though, we will need to wait until we have analysed the productivity measures, and the researchers can provide the impact of the trial on engagement to really understand how it has worked.”
Brotherton said they were surprised at the level of inquiries they received about the trial from across New Zealand and globally.
“It just shows that we are all grappling with how we work and are looking for some form of flexibility from the standard 9-5pm and daily commute,” she said.