The Unlikely Face of the Four-Day Workweek Movement

Leni MaiaiExecutive Profiles
Andrew Barnes

Andrew Barnes, chairman and founder of Perpetual Guardian, New Zealand's largest statutory trust company. Image Source: Perpetual Guardian.

On the face of it, Perpetual Guardian is an incredibly successful company in a centuries old sector; the multi-million dollar business of death. Perhaps not the obvious pick to be the face of a global revolution around the future of work.

“We look after individuals, their wills, their estates, their trusts. And so we manage affairs of people who have died,” said Andrew Barnes, chairman and founder of Perpetual Guardian, New Zealand's largest statutory trust company.

It’s a Thursday morning and Barnes is the only person in the companies’ high rise ‘family office’ in central Auckland, an expansive space with walls dotted with fine art and the crisscross of heavily cushioned couches interrupted by abstract sculpture.

Once upon a time, this was the company’s HQ. Today, it stands mostly to broker deals, conduct philanthropic work, and “for historical reasons.”

Back in 2018, when the idea of a four-day workweek sounded like the stuff of economic science fiction, Barnes stumbled across some research showing the average UK office worker is only productive for 2 hours and 53 minutes a day.

He immediately reflected on his own businesses, which then employed 240 people. Was this happening for them? If so, how could he change the proportion of productive versus unproductive time in the workplace?

“The idea I came up with was to say, well, actually, why don't we say to staff, we'll gift you a day off if you can maintain the same level of weekly output, but do it over four days,” said Barnes.

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Perpetual Guardian's Chairman and Founder, Andrew Barnes. Image Source: Perpetual Guardian.

Working less and being paid the same appears antithetical to conventional capitalist wisdom, but Barnes decided to just go for it.

“It helps if you own the company, you can sort of do it because you stand or fall on whether it impacts the business,” said Barnes.

They decided to put it to a one month trial; the results were immediate.

“We found that internet surfing on the top five non-business related internet sites dropped 35 percent. So people stopped doing non-work activity at work.”

He also recognised the dropping of busy-ness — people attending meetings for meetings sake, redundant email chains, the kind of carry on that people can get away with an extra 8 hour day on their side.

Since then, the trial has evolved into company policy for Perpetual Guardian’s now more than 300 staff. They are “twice as productive as our nearest competitor right now,” have seen sick days fall through the floor, and most importantly, have noticed staff become far more happy in their jobs.

One of the company’s employees in the South Island takes two afternoons off of work a week — the equivalent of a day’s work — to hang out with his young granddaughter.

“They have tea together, and when he tells the story of that, he cries,” Barnes said. “Because that's giving him something he could otherwise never have and he could never get it back. That’s time with his granddaughter while she's young.”

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14 staff from Perpetual Guardian pitched-in to cook for Ronald Mcdonald House Auckland. Image Source: LinkedIn.

Unsurprisingly, Perpetual Guardian’s work reshaping the traditional workweek has caught the eyes — and headlines — of the world.

Barnes has conducted media interviews from 96 different countries in the world, has been featured in The New York Times (the article now lives framed on his wall), and estimates that the audience for the four-day week proposition has reached 4.5 billion people.

But as expected, it’s not all beanbags and sunshine for the fledgling concept. In response to calls for a four-day week, some economists have shrugged it off as “misguided utopianism.” Even current Perpetual Guardian CEO, Patrick Gamble, acknowledges some of the shortcomings.

“To be honest, you do have to stay on top of some people. We have some staff who take it really seriously – they have shorter meetings; they don’t muck around – but we have the odd few who struggle to maintain the discipline,” said Gamble in a recent interview with Australian HRM Online.

Utopia or not, the results are hard to argue with. Microsoft Japan reported seeing 40% productivity gains following a pilot, global accounting firm PwC has committed to shift most of its 8,000-strong workforce in Australia to four days a week by next month, and Spain (yes, the country) has announced intentions to start a “modest trial” with around 200 companies.

Barnes jokes that on top of the work for his various companies, his advocacy for the four-day week concept has made its implementation near impossible in his own life.

“Well, my problem is, of course, that I spend all my flippin’ time talking about the four-day week,” said Barnes.

To try and give himself some of this time back, Barnes and his team put together an online resource to help any kind of organisation learn about how to implement the shortened week, understand the data supporting it, and join a community of organisations in a similar boat. Guest authors opine about “getting your team to do more than meet deadlines,” and you can even buy Barnes’ book on the topic.

So what is it about this concept that has hit such a nerve with business and employees around the world?

“To me, what this says is this is a really big issue for people all over the world and the fact that we are still talking about it, when we did the trial beginning in 2018, shows this is a thing that people are desperately looking for,” said Barnes.

Whether or not these shortened weeks are going to be broadly adopted globally is yet to be seen. The United States is still leading the league in hours worked and shows no signs of slowing, but there’s no arguing the momentum is slowly bringing it closer to the mainstream.

“The four day week is not a wild idea anymore. For an organisation, it’s now a discussion as to should we have it, and could we have it.”

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