Unilever Latest to Test Four-Day Work Week

December 16, 2020

The “burnout” is real.  With large segments of the global workforce transitioned into “remote work”, Unilever has launched a pilot four-day work week program in New Zealand aimed at overcoming some unprecedented challenges of the COVID era – work-life balance, right to disconnect, distant employee engagement and workplace mental health.
 
 The Separation Between Work and Home – Will the Four-Day Work Week be the Solution?
 
Unilever recently announced its plan to experiment with a four-day workweek for its entire workforce in New Zealand.  The trial will focus on the 81 employees located there and span over the next year.  Similarly, another New Zealand firm, Perpetual Guardian, found that productivity went up and employees reported a 24 percent improvement in work-life balance.  The same boosts were found in Microsoft’s Japan office, which implemented a four-day schedule last summer and reported a productivity boost of 40 percent and a 23 percent drop in electricity use. 
 
All the positive results indicated a shortened workweek could be a great option to deal with employees’ remote work burnout during the global pandemic and even after. 
 
However, the issue might be more complex.  A shortened workweek doesn’t simply mean cutting working hours and expecting the same productivity.  Instead, it might require a fundamental change of company culture regarding work habits.  A study of companies that enacted shorter workweeks identified several unique modifications in their company cultures.  Instead of back-to-back meetings, overflowing emails, and constant emergencies, these companies have taken steps to create a healthier work environment in which employees have the time and mental space to get their real work done. The key of promoting productivity is to limit unnecessary distractions and encourage true dedication from employees. 
 
A shorter workweek can be challenging for industries where employees must accommodate customer accessibility.  A local government in Sweden that gave nurses a shorter, six-hour workday had to spend $1.3 million to hire 15 additional employees to work the hours that the others were no longer putting in.
 
Furthermore, Spain’s government is considering proposing shorter working hours to boost employment. Some European countries and New Zealand have also tested or encouraged their employers to apply for a shorter workweek or hours. It seems contradictory to have a strict government mandate to promote a policy which supposedly provides more flexibility. However, the government’s stance can be an important factor in affecting changes with employers.
 
Your employees know the best 
 
For global companies that want to go this route, it is important to consult with your employees: ask how they think a flexible work program should be designed, and inquire how their productivity should be measured if a shorter week or different working hours are proposed. A shorter workweek is not the only option employers have to increase productivity when maintaining positive spirit and morale, and the employees might surprise you with their thoughts. 
 
Outlook:  Unilever has 81 employees in New Zealand. When the trial ends in December 2021, and the firm will evaluate whether a four-day workweek should be extended to its 155,000 employees across the globe. For global employers, it is important to learn what internal measures and policies need to be in place to keep the productivity and consistency, as well as understanding what your employees really need.