The success of Perpetual Guardian's trial of a four-day working week poses the question of whether this has the potential for broader application across the Kiwi workforce.

Andrew Barnes, the chief executive at the Auckland firm, says he has already received queries from numerous companies, local and overseas, on what steps to take to roll out similar initiatives within their businesses.

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Four-day working week trial at Perpetual Guardian a success

While Barnes believes in the potential for the working model to be applied more broadly, he warns there will be a few roadblocks along the way.

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The first – and most pressing issue – facing Barnes is that employment law makes it difficult to put the initiative into practice.

"Everything we've done in employment law is all about hours worked," he told the Herald.

"It started with the 12-hour day, then 10-hour day and now the eight-hour day. We are conditioned to think in terms of time being the key issue as opposed to productivity."

Barnes said this made sense historically, when most workers were on a production line or the mines, but it's no longer fit for purpose in the modern age.

He points to the example of the accumulation of annual leave, saying that this is based on the number of days spent in the office – which in turn makes his attempt to offer the four-day week problematic in a legal sense.

"The legislation needs change so that where staff opt-in to the structure, the law provides protection for organisations," Barnes said.

"I could get prosecuted, if I get this wrong, for giving my staff 40 days off on top of their leave."

Perpetual Guardian boss Andrew Barnes wants to make the four-day week a permanent thing.

Beyond the legal concerns, there's also the logistical issue of when staff might choose to take their day off work. It goes without saying that most staff would prefer to take off either a Monday or a Friday to get a long weekend, but an empty building wouldn't exactly be ideal in the services or manufacturing industries which are often required to deliver on a daily basis.

Barnes says it's important not to take the Perpetual Guardian trial as a blueprint for the application of a four-day week across every business, pointing out that this exact approach won't work across every business type and that managers should find an appropriate balance.

He also urges businesses in the manufacturing or services sector not to turn their noses up to the idea in that there have been similar studies conducted in these industries.

One of the earliest studies of the relationship between working hours and productivity involved a British munitions factory during World War I which required staff to work seven days a week.

"When they reduced it to six days, productivity went up," notes Barnes.

One of the earliest studies on workplace productivity was conducted in a munitions factory in World War I. Photo/123RF.
One of the earliest studies on workplace productivity was conducted in a munitions factory in World War I. Photo/123RF.

As much as managers are responsible for shifting the conversation to productivity, staff also need to buy in to the change.

Barnes says that staff should negotiate their terms of employment on the basis of what they produce rather than how many hours they work.

If someone believes that they can complete the same amount of work in fewer days, then they should be remunerated according to the work done.

However, this shift also comes with some risks in terms of how work is viewed in the modern context. In challenging many of the rules and norms that have been established and fought for by the unions, we risk unravelling the protections that have ensured businesses don't take advantage of their staff.

Time spent in the office is much easier to measure than productivity, which is why workers have historically been paid in accordance to the times they check in and check out.

Barnes says that he's conscious of the concerns that a focus on productivity might lead to potential job cuts as companies attempt to strip down to their most efficient work force.

As one Herald reader pointed out, Perpetual Guardian has essentially proven that staff are working 20 per cent less efficiently than they should be over five days – which is to say you keep the five days and simply cut the number of employees.

While this argument might overlook the importance of holding on to good staff at a time when there's a significant talent shortage, it does show that the productivity argument placed in the wrong hands could have a troubling impact on workers.

Perhaps, there's value yet in hanging on to the five-day workweek until the law catches up.