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Many mature-aged workers want to have longer working lives but not necessarily in full-time roles. Yet few of us think about or question whether the five day, full-time working week is actually necessary for the majority of workers, because it is so entrenched in our organizational culture.  That assumption is being challenged by new research which suggests that employees are more productive and organizations more profitable when people work four rather than five days. Could this be the solution, not just for older workers but for all workers, giving them more free time?

An article in The Sydney Morning Herald recently highlighted the success of an experiment undertaken by New Zealand businessman, Andrew Barnes, to improve productivity by reducing his employees’ workday week to four days while maintaining their normal five day pay. As a result his business has seen a six per cent increase in productivity and 12.5 percent increase in profitability in the 12 months since he permanently introduced the policy.  Studies suggest that as well as improving productivity, a four day week increases engagement and commitment to the business, increases life satisfaction, reduces stress levels, helps to attract the right talent and also retain older workers and those with caring responsibilities. There are also potential environmental benefits such as less fuel consumption.

Barnes is now an outspoken advocate who believes the five day week “is obsolete in the 21st century”. Australian industry leaders are less convinced however, seeing “no merit” in a four day week.  Barnes suggests they need to look more closely at the trial and research results to get a better understanding of the benefits. The idea is garnering attention internationally. At least 250 companies in the U.K. have taken it up with research suggesting an estimated annual collective saving of £92 billion. Microsoft also trialled a four day week for employees in Japan with a consequent productivity jump of 40 percent.

It’s worth noting some of the potential downsides. Professor Marian Baird from the University of Sydney cautions that there is plenty of room for abuse with people being expected to fit five days’ work into four, requiring employees to undertake unpaid work at home. This is a trade-off experienced by many women seeking flexibility on their return to work from maternity leave. We also don’t know if productivity gains are sustained over time as it is a relatively new workplace phenomenon and not widely implemented. It could also be very complex to introduce in some sectors such as medicine and education that are intensive, public-facing jobs. 

Another solution being proffered to the time squeeze employees, especially those with caring responsibilities experience, is a six hour rather than eight hour day.  But history shows that dramatic changes to the working week are not easily won and can take decades before they are widely accepted. However, the conversation seems to be gaining momentum which could be good news for older workers who seek more flexibility at work.

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