An interesting workplace experiment took place in New Zealand this past spring. It was straightforward enough in concept: Employees would work four days a week, but their current pay levels would not change. They would work four days but be paid for five — a full week.
As so often happens when human beings are involved, the experiment was simple but the results are not. In fact, the experiment’s results are raising questions about workplace management practices that have become established dogma.
The results from the Perpetual Guardian firm in New Zealand, where the experiment in work hours originated, indicated that there was no decrease in the amount of work accomplished each week. As there had been a 20 percent reduction in work hours, that meant that productivity had gone up.
Anecdotally, it appears that the experiment boosted morale, which possibly can be causally linked to the productivity increase. Analysts from two New Zealand universities are poring over the data and worker interviews to sort out the results and see what conclusions can be drawn.
The results from New Zealand resemble the outcome of a similar experiment in Sweden. In France, however, a nationwide mandate shortening the work week produced an outpouring of complaints from business owners and little else.
Many modern workplaces are better at producing stress than productivity. They are characterized by constant activity, a boundless appetite for meetings, an incessant noise level from telephone and in-person conversations, and a pronounced tendency toward disarray.
One of the most interesting aspects of the New Zealand experiment was the response of the workers to their new schedule. They enjoyed their day off to be sure, but they also changed their work habits in order to get their tasks done in less time. Two things they did on their own — no management involved — was to shorten meeting times and adopt an agreed-upon signal that an individual needed some uninterrupted time to complete a task. Essentially, in a workplace without doorknobs it was a “do not disturb” sign.
What is the real lesson of these workplace experiments? It is that workers are more productive when management understands what they do — and what they don’t do — and cares about it. Management isn’t about cost-cutting; it’s about people. If you get the people side of it right, productivity will take care of the costs.