I recently read the book, It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work. The basic premise is that we spend too much time at work, not actually doing work. The result is that we spend an inordinate amount of time at work which leads to stress, anxiety and burnout. The authors suggest that we all do what their company, Basecamp, does – inculcate a culture that limits employees to a reasonable amount of time working, i.e. 40 hours per week.

The idea behind this approach is that a less stressed workforce with a greater work/life balance will be more efficient and more creative. A financial services company out of New Zealand, Perpetual Guardian, took this approach even further, instituting a 30 hour work week.

The authors of It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy found their employees happier, more satisfied and more loyal than before they instituted a firm 40 hour work week. Even with a shorter work week, Perpetual Guardian found a similar result.

“Managers reported their teams were more creative after the trial,” he [Jarrod Haar, professor of human resource management at the Auckland University of Technology] said. “It involved them finding solutions to doing their work in four days, so this reflected well. Importantly, they rated their teams as giving better customer service – they were more engaging and focused when clients and customers called.”

Four-day week trial: study finds lower stress but no cut in output

The results of the Perpetual Guardian experiment confirmed that fewer working hours did not affect output. Perhaps this is counter-intuitive to you. What is it about having less time to perform the same amount of work that incentivizes people to work harder?

From an interview with one of the company’s employees:

  • “We’ve been treated like adults and I think as a result everyone is behaving like adults.”
  • “I was actually finishing projects before moving on to the next one, and by the end of the day found I was accomplishing more than trying to multitask everything.”
  • “I did find that my productivity increased purely by being more aware of my work processes and thinking about how I was doing things and why I was doing them.”

The key to greater productivity, as identified in It Doesn’t have to be Crazy and in the recap of Perpetual Guardian’s experience, is based on the idea of uninterrupted work time. Blocking out interruptions like email messages and text messages and phone calls and reducing time spent in meetings allows one to get into a state of flow.

In addition to limiting external interruptions, in the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, the state of flow can occur in work when a core set of conditions are met.

  1. The objectives are well-defined
  2. The task is challenging, but not perceived as impossible
  3. Feedback is immediate and continuous

When people have to mindful about what they are trying to accomplish and how to accomplish that task efficiently, it becomes possible to enter into a more efficient mental an psychological state.

A four-day work week may not be possible for all organizations; small retail operations, for example, where being present in person is a major aspect of the business. For many other organizations, it may not only be possible, but preferred. The key is preparation and planning.

The biggest concern from an employer point of view is ensuring that the full-time introduction of the policy doesn’t lead to complacency, with the risk that people’s productivity will slip back. To guard against this happening we’ve spent a lot of time making sure every person in every team has their own plan as to how they’re going to maintain and even improve their productivity.

Four-day week trial: study finds lower stress but no cut in output

There is one additional aspect of a work environment that involves more leisure time. Leisure time is not just time to decompress binge-watching television or reading, but with more leisure time comes the opportunity to explore new ideas, new hobbies or time with friends and family that add to the enjoyment and richness of life. The Perpetual Guardian experience revealed that this is indeed what was happening for workers.

Keep in mind, some of the greatest minds in human history made their discoveries or developed their ideas during their leisure time. Newton developed the concept of gravity, Einstein developed the Theory of Relativity, Gregor Mendel launched the science of genetics through his gardening hobby, and Copernicus developed his description of planetary motion.

Providing more opportunities for leisure time may be just the thing that is needed to spur creativity on the job. You may not discover the next Einstein among employees and colleagues, but then again, you might.