Four day working week: the lessons

By dropping to a four-day working week, one Australian company has increased profit, revenue, staff retention and morale. Read how.

In the year since making her workplace Wednesday-free, Kath Blackham, Founder and CEO of digital design and voice experience (VX) agency VERSA, has seen an increase in staff retention, a reduction in sick leave, a three-fold increase in profit and almost doubling of revenue year-on-year.

It also means staff are actually limited in the number of hours they work each week so are less likely to reach burn-out and more likely to be more productive in the days they are at work, making it an integral part of the company’s focus on good mental health in the workplace.

And yet there are still those who continue to doubt the efficacy of such an initiative.

“There are certainly some businesses where this wouldn’t work because of their staff or client base or the nature of their business, but there is also plenty of scope to see what will work for your staff,” Blackham says of her decision to introduce a four-day working week.

“That’s why other people should try it. I want businesses to start having a discussion at a senior level to see if this works.

“I am trying to show other agencies you can be successful, profitable and growing. We have grown in the last 10 years 30 per cent year on year, every year, and this year we will grow by 46 per cent. Some of that is the emerging tech and part of it is due to the fact that we have a really great team of people who are happy and productive.”

VERSA is a Melbourne-based company with offices in Sydney and, since June, in Singapore.

It has a headcount of 55 and works with a number of well-known brands including Coca-Cola, Domino’s Pizza, Heinz, Dairy Australia, Pfizer, beyondblue and Village Cinemas.

Under the four-day working week structure, staff work their weekly 37.5 hours over Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. There is just the one staff member who works on a Wednesday and that is because this is one of only two days a week she can get childcare.

Blackham says the four-day work week, introduced on July 1 2018, came after trying a number of flexible working approaches as part of what she considers a holistic approach to ensuring the mental and physical wellbeing of her staff.

The business began with complete flexibility - staff working remotely or in the office as it suited them and on the days and hours that worked best for them. As long as the work was delivered each week and there were no adverse impacts on customer service, staff had a strong say in when and where they worked.

“That worked for us when there were just five or six of us and, to a lesser extent, it still worked when there were even 15 of us, but it was not sustainable as the business grew,” she says. “At scale it didn’t work as well because people wanted to have meetings and didn’t know who was around and when.

“I think the growth has allowed me a platform if you like. It was much harder as a smaller business to play around with different models because we couldn’t afford to make mistakes because the margin of error is much smaller.”

Blackham said she became aware of the need for mental health awareness in the workplace after securing beyondblue as a client many years ago and taking on staff who deal with anxiety.

“We have worked to really de-stigmatise mental health in the workplace,” she says. “We have a psychologist come in once a year and speak about why people should ask for help when they need it. I think we could all do with sitting inside a psychologist’s office.

“I don’t differentiate what we are doing on the four-day week from other mental health initiatives. Each day we ask our staff to share one thing they are grateful for and we also have a dedicated space for our staff with anxiety where they can go and sit or lie down.”

As for the choice to make Wednesday the day off each week, she explains it was well considered.

“The day off is there almost as an official mental health day so people can exercise, sleep, catch up on things or do whatever they like,” she says. “If we had made it a Monday or Friday, the younger ones would likely go out and party and parents would perhaps use it as a chance to get away or it would just be soaked up with the weekend. It’s not designed to be a long weekend. It’s there as a day for you to get life admin done.

“For me, that means on the weekend I can spend time with my family.”

An added bonus of the four-day working week is the fact it actually limits the number of hours staff do in a week, which Blackham says is actually a positive.

“A normal working week is unusual in our industry with most people working a 50-hour week or more,” she says. “At the core of the strategy is the fact that people know our expectation is not that they work 50 hours per week. There is a trust here which isn’t really seen in other agencies. People are really effective with their time because they know they have to be.

“It helps us to eliminate the burn and churn mentality and offers our staff a chance to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

“And we have noticed how good it has been for our morale. People come in on Monday refreshed from their weekend and again on Thursdays feeling really thankful for having had a day off and are really geed up and ready to get to work. That adds to the feeling of ownership among our staff and every company needs that to be truly successful.”

Blackham says she has had a lot of interest from company leaders who are looking to adopt her approach, with much of that interest coming from Europe, and notably the UK, but not quite so much in Australia.

“The one piece of advice I will offer anyone considering this is that is must be done from the top down,” she says. “I spoke with one company that said they wanted to trial it for staff but management would still work the five days.

“But that is just sending the wrong message to your staff who will follow the example of those they report to. If management is working five days a week, staff will feel an obligation to do the same.

“I wouldn’t give up my Wednesdays off now. Initially it was hard for me not to work on a Wednesday, and I am always available if I am needed, but this is healthy and good for me and our staff, which is why I want other businesses to look at it.

“There is a seismic shift happening in the way we work and I truly believe that in 10 years’ time, we will look back and laugh at how we all used to be in an office, working 9 to 5, five days a week having adopted much healthier ways of working.”

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