More businesses are signing up to shorter weeks and hours, and it's not just for busy mothers.

He heads a team of 14 at one of the country's busy trusts companies.

Work on Auckland's Queen St is about 19km from his West Harbour home, which, during peak-hour traffic, can take more than an hour each way.

But Willem van der Steen is able to pick up his son Alex from school by 3.15pm most days and by 4pm you might find them on the water, or exploring nature. And he often gets to take long weekends.

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Working 9 to 5, it's no way to make a living for the 44-year-old.

The old 40-hour, five-day-a-week routine is, if not dead and buried, then at least fast falling out of favour.

Van der Steen is the head of digital at Perpetual Guardian, which on Thursday will officially introduce its four-day working week after a six-month trial.

Staff can take an extra day off, or work shorter days to meet threshold for the new 32-hour week.

Van der Steen tries to be in the office by 8am and leave before 3pm. He takes an hour for lunch so works about six hours a day. Or, if he wants to go away with his partner and son, he will work eight hours a day and take Friday off.

The company's hours were previously structured from 8.30am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.

Willem van der Steen, is one of many employees at Perpetual Guardian who works a four-day week. He now gets more time to spend with his son Alex, aged 8. Photo / Supplied
Willem van der Steen, is one of many employees at Perpetual Guardian who works a four-day week. He now gets more time to spend with his son Alex, aged 8. Photo / Supplied

Van der Steen's partner is a primary school teacher and isn't able to leave work before 5pm. Before his new hours, the couple relied on after-school programmes, or Grandma, who lives nearby, to take care of Alex.

"I don't have to stress with the traffic," he says.

"If I end up doing some work from home, it's okay, because I am home. I've got the little one around, I can play with him.

"You can go out of Auckland for a long weekend, go to the beach, go to the Waitakere Ranges, go for a nature walk, kayak around Herald Island."

All van der Steen's team have opted into the reduced work week.

"Before, you'd check the news headlines, check Facebook," he says.

"We're still getting work done, it's just much more focused.

"My team is very efficient in six hours. The first two weeks were weird. But now the meetings are shorter - we have 45-minute standups, everything is just a little bit faster.

"The lazy questions are gone. It's more actionable requests."

There is no punishment if staff are not completing their work within the 32 hours, but a conversation about what's stopping them achieving it is had, van der Steen says.

He is still contactable out of hours but staff are more wary about bugging colleagues.

"If they need you, they can text, call or email but there's an agreement that it's only if there is an emergency, not just for chit-chatty stuff. People have to think about what they are asking you and whether it can wait."

The Dutch native has lived in New Zealand for two years and says companies in the Netherlands offered reduced hours, but you had to take reduced pay.

Perpetual Guardian director Andrew Barnes started a trial for the reduced week in March to see what impact it would have on productivity levels at the business.

Employees who opted in were eligible for a weekly rest day provided they met their weekly productivity objectives. They were paid their usual salary.

This initial test was a success, with independent academic research showing productivity levels remaining intact and job satisfaction improving markedly among staff members.

Since the venture, about 15 Kiwi businesses have been in touch with the company keen to learn more about the idea, says a spokeswoman.

"Most of these businesses have been researchng how to implement a similar form of flexible working structure into their own businesses."

They have also received interest from about 35 companies around the globe.

Perpetual Guardian is producing a white paper next month detailing what it learned from its trial and what it has done to be able to achieve the move. It has received more than 120 requests for a copy, including from 23 New Zealand businesses.

Andrew Barnes, managing director of Perpetual Guardian. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Andrew Barnes, managing director of Perpetual Guardian. Photo / Jason Oxenham

It has been 178 years since London-born Wellington carpenter Samuel Parnell refused to work more than eight hours a day, sparking a wider movement in New Zealand (he informed other workmen arriving on incoming ships of the local custom). Fifty years later, the country's first Labour Day was observed and has been since. The latest, this week.

Parnell's response when asked by a a shipping agent to build a store has entered New Zealand folklore: "There are twenty-four hours per day given us; eight of these should be for work, eight for sleep, and the remaining eight for recreation and in which for men to do what little things they want for themselves. I am ready to start to-morrow morning at eight o'clock, but it must be on these terms or none at all."

Parnell was on to something, but maybe it's time to take his idea further. While the broad perception may be that flexible hours are the preserve of mothers with childcare responsibilities, this is quite far from the reality.

Research by Timewise, a UK company which advertises part-time and flexible roles, found childcare was not the most common reason given for working flexibly or choosing part-time work. Only 35 per cent of part-timers who would prefer to continue working part-time cite caring responsibilities as their reason, compared to 36 per cent citing general convenience, 40 per cent wanting to enjoy leisure time or study and 48 per cent looking for the catch-all "work/life balance".

New Zealand's employment legislation doesn't define what full-time or part-time work is, but full-time work is often considered to be around 35 to 40 hours a week.

For statistical purposes, Statistics New Zealand defines full-time as working 30 hours or more per week. It says there are 546,600 part-time workers in New Zealand and 2.02 million full-timers.

An analysis last year showed 400,000 of the part-timers didn't want to take on any more hours.

A search on TradeMe jobs this week found 3142 listings using the keyword "flexible", 1200 of them in Auckland.

As well as flexible hours, more New Zealand companies are offering support for staff who have children.

NZME - which owns the Weekend Herald - gives primary carers a $5000 one-off payment on top of the Government's statutory paid leave benefit of 22 weeks — which went up on July 1 from 18 weeks — at a maximum $538.55 a week.

It also offers an additional two weeks' paid leave -which could be taken in a block or broken up and used as individual days over six months - for eligible partners of primary carers.

ANZ has increases its paid parental leave this month to 26 weeks. And My Food Bag - co-founded by working mums Nadia Lim and Cecilia Robinson - offers 18 weeks paid leave for new mums on top of the 18 weeks' leave paid by the Government.

If staff choose to work through the extra 18 weeks the company boosts their salary.

My Food Bag also provides all parents with an additional six parental sick days per year.

As well as flexible hours, flexible locations are on the rise.

The Straker Group, a tech company based on Auckland's North Shore, has fielded several inquiries form jobhunters since the Herald on Sunday reported its move to Gisborne last week.

The company had asked its 38 New Zealand employees whether they wanted the office moved into the city centre, so more of the city was available to younger staff struggling to buy their first home in the inflated property market.

Staff wanted them to go further. So in June, company founders Merryn and Grant Straker, opened an office in Gisborne. Nine staff have moved with a further 11 likely to join in the coming year.

Zany offices are also keeping 21st century workers engaged.

At Google's New Zealand headquarters, on the 27th floor of downtown Auckland's PwC tower, the main office has beach umbrellas, a bach-style side room for meetings, and quirky decor typical of the company's offices.

The global tech company is widely regarded as having some of the best offices in the world, including secret rooms in an Ontario building, an indoor basketball court in Zurich, slides and games rooms, rooftop mini-golf or in-house masseuses.

The preference for flexible working is strong among both men and women, says Timewise, with the vast majority (84 per cent) of male full-time workers currently working flexibly or saying they want to, compared to 91 per cent of female full-time workers.

More conversations about how to work flexibly, rather than why, are needed, argues co-founder Karen Mattison.

As well as flexible hours, flexible locations are on the rise. Photo / 123RF
As well as flexible hours, flexible locations are on the rise. Photo / 123RF

"The whole link between the reason for working flexibly being children or caring responsibilities has held back the discussion about flexible working.

"We haven't talked enough about how we make it work but [have been] focusing on why, and actually the much more interesting and valuable conversation is how do we make it work when, say, four people in a team do three days a week, three people do four days, and two people work from home?"

The reasons for wanting to do things differently should ultimately not even be relevant, she suggests. "We don't believe there's [any such thing as] a 'good' or 'special' reason. The direction of travel should be towards reason-neutral."

How to ask for flexible working

Karen Mattison, Joint chief executive of Timewise, gives her top tips:

Do your research

If the job advert isn't clear about what flexibility – if any – is possible, it is a good idea to call and ask the HR Department before you apply. It is also worth asking whether they already have people working flexibly in that given role type and/or team. This is usually the major tell-tale sign if flexibility will even be a possibility.

Know your worth

If you hold a senior position, have hard-to-find skills and top-notch experience, you hold much stronger negotiating powers. The jobs market is turning, and employers are struggling to find suitable candidates for some roles. Capitalise on this.

Show you can make it work
Demonstrate how you make it work in your current role, without apologising for it. For example: "My working pattern is currently a four-day week and I consistently meet my sales targets. Would you be able to match this?"

Don't lead on the flex issue

Avoid the mistake of sounding as if you've only applied because it's a job with flexible working options. First and foremost, you have applied because you have the right skills, it's a great role, and you want to work for this company. No one wants to hire someone who is only applying because the job is the part time.

Social networks at work: democratic or dangerous?

Conversations that once took place during phone calls, meetings and cigarette breaks now increasingly happen online. Photo / 123RF
Conversations that once took place during phone calls, meetings and cigarette breaks now increasingly happen online. Photo / 123RF

Once upon a time, sitting at your desk liking and swiping was a good way to annoy your boss.

But now some of the world's biggest employers are coaxing workers to sign up to a new form of social media designed for the workplace. Among the first was Yammer. Then there was Slack, common in New Zealand offices like NZME - publisher of the Weekend Herald. There is also Microsoft's Teams, Google Plus and Facebook's Workplace, adopted by firms including easyJet, Spotify, RBS and Walmart, the world's third-biggest employer.

Conversations that once took place during phone calls, meetings and cigarette breaks now increasingly happen online, meaning they can be shared across offices and time zones. Such systems will be increasingly necessary as more people work remotely.

"Millennials are now going into management roles, and they want to communicate with their employees using the technology they grew up with," says Vicki Huff Eckert at PWC.

And since many of these apps function well on mobile phones, they can include people such as airline cabin crew or factory workers, who are often culturally separate from head-office colleagues.

Hard evidence about productivity or profit is elusive, but many business leaders say they have observed happier employees and better work processes, as well as big reductions in email use. Jen Baxter at GlaxoSmithKline says Workplace had helped introverted scientists collaborate in a way that suited them. But there, perhaps, lies a danger.

Slack has been criticised as distracting, an addictive pseudo video game that obliterates employees' concentration by obliging them to reply quickly to the merest of trifles.

"It normalises interruptions, multitasking and distractions," wrote Abe Winter, a tech worker. "[It] will give attention deficit disorder to your whole company."

Another potential problem is what kind of communication such services might encourage.

"The design of the software leads to very different behaviour from people," says Greg Moran, operations chief for Wiretap, a company that uses AI to scan enterprise social networks for abusive or dangerous messages.

"They encourage a chattiness and a back and forth... the conversational or informal nature of these platforms creates more problematic content."

He points to Uber - which fired its chief executive and 20 other people last year after a former employee detailed sexual harassment she had received over the company chat app. That in turn raises the question of surveillance.

They could also be used to root out workers who are planning to leave their jobs or who make negative comments about a boss. For Jamie Woodcock, a sociologist who spent six months undercover in a British call centre, this is just the latest way in which employers are using technology to increase control of workers.

Moran says a debate is required about how much information our society wants managers to have. But if its anything like personal social media, it could become ubiquitous before that debate even starts.

- Additional reporting: Daily Telegraph UK