Minnie Baragwanath didn't come to understand the value of a flexible working environment by reading about it. For her, the issue has always been personal.

Partially blind since she was diagnosed with Stargardt's Disease at 15, Baragwanath realised early that a traditional workplace didn't create the conditions that would allow her to thrive.

So she established a business called Be.Accessible, focused entirely on helping business owners make their workplaces more accessible to staff with disabilities.

As the organisation grew and she employed staff, she realised it wasn't only people with disabilities who struggled to cope with the rules governing the corporate system.


Everyone from young mums and dads, to older workers looking after ailing parents struggled to run the nine-to-five rat race every day.

In response, Baragwanath allows staff to work part-time and remotely, relying on technology to stay connected wherever they are.

Baragwanath isn't alone in challenging the standard approach to the working day. New Zealand trust company Perpetual Guardian this year conducted an eight-week experiment that saw staff drop down to a four-day week while staying on a full salary.

The company has since returned to normal working hours as it waits for the results of academic research on the impact of the experiment, due in mid-July.

The study's findings could have an impact well beyond Perpetual Guardian, with a number of other businesses keen to find out if the four-day week boosted productivity.

"We have had approaches from businesses in the UK such as Simply Business, as well as interested groups and organisations all keen to see the results of the trial," said Perpetual Guardian's head of people and capability, Christine Brotherton.

"In New Zealand, Yellow and Sudima Hotels & Resorts have signalled particular interest in seeing the results of our trial."

Similar experiments are also happening across the Tasman in Hobart, where the financial firm Collins SBA managed to maintain productivity despite reducing the working day to five hours.


While these examples are still relatively niche, they're sparking a growing debate about how we work, where we work and how long we work.

Pierre Ferrandon, New Zealand country manager at IWG, the parent of workspace companies Regus, Spaces and BizDojo, believes the numbers already speak for themselves.

He argues that traditional office spaces, often leased for six to 10 years, are costly when calculated on a usage basis.

"These spaces are only used 52 per cent of the time, during standard working hours with a little buffer at each end, and meeting room utilisation is a mere 12 per cent," he said.

"What if companies started paying only for the space they used when they used it, and didn't lock themselves into long-term lease agreements that create additional balance sheet liabilities?"

Ferrandon also believes wider adoption of flexible work hours could combat Auckland's traffic congestion.

But for all the positive press flexible working gets, it could have a downside.

Dismantling work structures that have existed for decades could mean undoing at least some of the work done by unions to establish workplace rules in the first place.

While technology makes it easier for people to connect wherever they are, First Union general secretary Dennis Maga warns that it also potentially keeps staff on the clock well beyond their allocated work hours.

The same issues arose, said Maga, when an employee chose a three-day week arrangement, for example, only to be allocated five days' worth of work.

"The workload is so enormous that some workers go back to a standard working arrangement," said Maga.

Maga said that was the reason why some employees working from home return to the workplace, where it is easier to differentiate between work and leisure.

At the same time that mainstream businesses grapple with the shifting rules of employment, there are also the new brand of tech players looking to entirely jettison the employer-employee relationship.

Businesses such as Uber are facing international backlash over their claim that they only provide a technology platform and should not be held to the standards that apply to a traditional employer.

Maga said he had also seen traditional businesses adopt a similar approach by launching tech platforms that connect service providers — often in IT and telecommunications — to jobs.

"They are being trained as an owner-operator, not an employee. And as an owner-operator it's up to you to work for as long as you like, as long as you provide the services they require. If you ask any of these owner-operators, they're working more than eight hours."

In a perfect world, this arrangement would see the company benefit by not having to employ an army of service staff all year round, while also giving the owner-operators enough work to earn a reasonable wage.

But in practice, things don't always play out that way. And as we pick apart the structures that have until now held everything together, some important bits are likely to come crashing down.