Why most four-day work week attempts fail


Every year, Marilla Akkermans likes to introduce something radically different at her Melbourne agency Equality Media + Marketing.
In 2021, it was “meet-free Mondays” – a day with fewer or no meetings and even less meat. Before that, it was expanding from buying media and ads for clients into building an in-house marketing team, or starting a creative division to develop the ad ideas for clients.

But early last year, after months of ruminating on the idea, Ms Akkermans decided to dive head-long into the holy grail of workplace behavioural consultancy experts: the four-day working week. The success of the now 12-month venture, named Equality Time, won the company the AFR BOSS Best Places to Work award for the media and marketing sector.

“The 40-hour work week was made when there was only one household worker, there was someone who was unemployed or a full-time home carer,” Ms Akkermans says. People lived five kilometres from where they worked. It was clock-on, clock-off. It was often physical labour, she adds.
“A 40-hour work week was so inventive when people could work up to 120 hours a week. But looking into how we can work in this knowledge era, often people are only working four hours a day. Why are we making everybody sit at a desk for five days a week?”
The change has prompted 68 per cent less time spent in meetings, saved 490 working days across staff, and improved profit (50 per cent), retention (circa 100 per cent) and led to fitter employees.

Equality’s team topped Kaimera and Half Dome to win, and placed ahead of media and marketing firms M&C Saatchi, King Kong, Nature, Publicis Groupe, PHD Australia, Rocket Agency and Reload Media in the AFR BOSS Best Places to Work rankings.
How it started
A self-described people-pleaser, Ms Akkermans started her business after a challenging time on maternity leave for her first child. A former workplace had asked her to come back before her time was up, she obliged, and says she got “kind of burnt out”.
“I was going to feel guilty when I was at home with my son and guilty when I was at work that I wasn’t with him. I would probably end up working on my days off because I can’t help myself,” she says.
One day, a former client called and said: “I have a campaign, I want you to do it. So are you going to start your own business or not?”

“That afternoon, I registered the business,” Ms Akkermans says.

Over five years, the company has expanded to 18 people based in an office in Richmond, in Melbourne’s inner south-east, with primarily property clients.

It works with Home Apartments, a build-to-rent community, Assemble, a company developing rental housing with a pathway to homeownership, and a slew of others.

“Apartment developments, land developments, home builders ... All types of construction and development,” she says.

COVID-19 lockdowns were long and tough in Victoria, but Ms Akkermans says her team worked harder than ever. It was exhausting. The business tripled over the two years, and she says she always wanted to pay above the market rate for most roles.
Competitive pressure
But in the later stages of COVID-19, the labour market tightened and wages spiralled upwards – fewer people competed for more roles. The largest survey in the media agency sector, from Media i, found 41 per cent of people had been in their role for less than a year last June – a staggering level of churn.

Some more junior roles that once paid $65,000 jumped as high as $90,000, while industry wage inflation sat at 20 per cent, recruiters said.

“Everybody was kind of catching up on [the pay side] because there was such a shortage in the industry. So then I thought, ‘What else can we do to make this an attractive place to work?’,” Ms Akkermans says.

“We had a few people who wouldn’t come and work for us because we were too small. They didn’t want to risk the instability of a perceived smaller business versus a global agency that has, you know, millions of dollars of backing.”

She settled on giving all staff an extra day off each week, on full pay.
Biggest mistakes
The biggest mistake businesses make when looking at a four-day working week is to introduce it with no structure, Ms Akkermans says. She says we take for granted how rigid the five days on, two days off system is. It is ingrained in our minds – “weekend” is a word hard-wired into our experience of work.

She listened to podcasts, read about a Danish trial of the shorter week, tests by Microsoft Japan and Unilever New Zealand, and followed a British campaign to shift to a 32-hour working week.

It all helped, Ms Akkermans says.
“A couple of my mates that run businesses had tried it, and they were like, ‘Nobody really liked it. They’d prefer to be at work.’ But then when I dug deeper, they hadn’t really invested in working through the process,” she says.
They tried it for six months, it worked, and it has stuck. Half of the office takes Mondays off, and the other takes Fridays. Every eight weeks, they swap.

No person is the sole point of contact for clients, and there is a handover process to make sure nothing falls through the cracks.

Her team has used the extra day to take long weekend drives into the country, do life admin, or even get tattoos, Ms Akkermans says. Parents spend the day taking care of their children, saving on childcare fees.

It has not worked against her when pitching for new clients, she insists, despite scepticism from management of some more traditional workplaces. Cultural fit has been a key factor in some more progressive account wins.

Her advice for businesses exploring a workplace change? “I’m a numbers person. Equality – equations. Start with those numbers. Look at the businesses and the four-day trials to show the efficiencies that you see,” she says.

“Show some of those efficiencies without actually jumping straight into the four-day week. Maybe you start with a nine-day fortnight, or half days on Fridays ... 2023 I feel is the first year again where everybody’s like, ‘let’s catch up’.

“Having a Monday or Friday where you’re on your own – the day is yours to do what you want.”
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