After successful pilot projects in Ireland, the United States and New Zealand last year, Dale Whelehan takes over as chief executive of 4 Day Week Global with momentum building behind a movement that contends a shorter working week really can amount to a win-win in the workplace.
The organisation advocates for people to receive 100 per cent of their pay for working 80 per cent of the time while being 100 per cent as productive as when they did a full 40-hour week. It all sounded a little more implausible before the trial after but afterwards, it started to produce positive results.
In Ireland last year a project involving 12 companies and almost 200 employees ended with good reviews from all sides. A majority of the firms said they would stick with the scheme while almost every one of the workers suggested they would never want to go back to the norm.
The story was much the same in the US, while in Japan Microsoft gave 2,300 workers five straight Fridays off and saw productivity increase by 40 per cent. Unilever’s operation in New Zealand, where 4 Day Week Global began, were so pleased with the results of their trial that the scheme has been rolled out to the company’s Australian wing.
The list of small but significant successes goes on, prompting suggestions that 2023 might be a breakthrough year for the four-day working week. Whelehan, from Kildare, certainly feels the conversation will catch on over the coming 12 months.
He, like the organisation he is joining, has come a long way in a short space of time. Having left Kildare to study physiotherapy in Trinity he developed an interest in the non-clinical side of healthcare and went on to research sleep deprivation and fatigue in surgeons. From that, he went into Human Capital Consulting at Deloitte where he specialised in culture and behaviour change.
“One of the biggest things that determine the success of a physiotherapy intervention is whether you can get patients to do exercises. Sleep deprivation and fatigue in surgery are linked to organisational issues like resourcing and inefficient processes. So the common thread,” he says, “is changing behaviour”.
Along the way, he did some work with 4 Day Week Global and now succeeds another Irish man, Joe O’Connor, as chief executive there. O’Connor has taken on the role of director at the Work Time Reduction Center of Excellence in Toronto.
Whelehan will be working with the organisation’s two founders and main funders: New Zealand-based business people Andrew Barnes and Charlotte Lockhart to build on recent successes. Getting more and bigger companies aboard, raising public funds to facilitate further trials and forging additional links with the academic sector are his main priorities. Conversations, he says, are being had and he comes across as confident of continued progress in the year ahead.
“There often tends to be smaller scale studies, before opportunities arise for larger scale ones, and they build momentum,” he says. “We’ve spoken to many of the Fortune 500 companies and there is interest. Now it is just about seeing how can we move the dial from interest to action.”
The sales pitch certainly seems strong. Whelehan notes a body of existing research that suggests most of our time at work is not particularly productive. The pilots to date suggest that people are prepared to adopt new ways of working to achieve as much in a shorter time in return for the better work-life balance that having an additional day, or its equivalent, off each week provides.
The evidence is that companies also come out of the process well, with happier workers who are more loyal and, as at Microsoft, often seem to end up being more productive than when they put in the extra hours. The impact on revenues is predictable.
In many instances, the goal for employees is a three-day weekend which is not always the way it works given the needs of particular workplaces but the companies that engage most successfully tend to work closely with their workers at team level to figure out what works best for everyone, says Whelehan.
Our research at @4dayweek_global is paving the way towards a new future of work. I spoke with @TIME to discuss the #4DayWeek initiative and how we can all be working better ⬇️— Charlotte Lockhart - Founder 4 Day Week Global (@lockhart_charli) January 24, 2023
“In many ways, it could be framed as a productivity pilot in the sense that it is saying to employees: we are giving you an opportunity to have more time off but you are going to work with us to figure out better ways to become productive in the 32 hours,” he says.
Pre-pandemic, he acknowledges, it would all have seemed more farfetched. “There was no such thing as hybrid working for many workforces and it was something that was never going to ever be actively considered. So I think it’s piggybacked off a lot of the momentum of that radical change in the way we work and as a result of Covid as well. People want change and flexible working is not enough for many workers at this point.”
They are, he says, tired and a four-day week can help them rest a bit, something companies who aspire to high performance should appreciate, he argues.
“In any high-performance culture — you look at elite sports, you look at aviation — recovery and rest have as important a role as work in the entire equation.”
There is some scepticism about the sectors in which the scheme might work but Whelehan makes a case for just about any you care to mention, including one still close to his own heart: healthcare.
“How could you introduce something like reducing working hours in a healthcare system which doesn’t have enough staff to cover basic services? But actually, when you look at the macroeconomics of a situation like healthcare, we are draining money by constantly recruiting, training then not retaining staff. And we’re facing issues around absenteeism and presenteeism in the workplace, which are all costing huge amounts to their employer at the moment.”
Cutting hours, he admits, means more staff in that sort of environment but trials in Iceland, he contends, show that the health service gets quite a bang for its additional buck.
He’ll start making the case full-time … well, 80 per cent of it anyway, from next Monday.