Our Community was the only Australian firm to join the world's biggest trial of the four-day working week, and it made the move permanent a month before the six-month trial finished. For other organisations considering their own move, this is what we've learnt.
Updated: 18 May 2023
As one of the first Australian employers to move to a four-day week, Our Community has challenged its people to become more focused and more productive than ever, and is fielding inquiries about how other organisations can follow suit.
The social enterprise and software firm, which employs 80 staff and growing, made the move to counter the effect of Melbourne’s extended pandemic lockdowns, to create a better work-life balance for employees, to enhance its already progressive work culture, and to show the way for other organisations.
In November 2022, less than five months into a six-month trial, group managing director Denis Moriarty confirmed to staff – literally to cheers – that the move would be permanent.
At that stage, while other firms were still starting pilots, Mr Moriarty said Our Community’s leadership team needed no more convincing about the many benefits of the change, which had seen business flourish, while sick leave had dropped by nearly one third.
By May 2023, results from a broader Australasian trial backed up what Our Community had already confirmed: that people were happier and more productive, and were enjoying a better work-life balance.
That trial reported an 82% satisfaction rating, a 44% drop in absenteeism, and a 9% drop in resignations. An overwhelming 96% of staff wanted to make the four-day week permanent, and a third said they would need a big pay hike to revert to five days. There were also positive findings about the home lives of participants, and environmental benefits from reduced travel.
Mr Moriarty said the hardest aspect of shifting to a four-day week had been changing people’s mindsets.
“It’s a psychological thing that you just need to do it, rather than worrying about all of the potential downside, but once we made the commitment, we knew we had to make it work.”
He expected to see many organisations follow Our Community’s lead as they saw the advantages.
Our Community joined world's largest four-day week trial
In an address to staff, Mr Moriarty credited them with the success of the pilot.
“You've had to change practices. We don't go to as many meetings, we don't send as many emails, we've shut down things that weren’t working, and we’ve worked through many of your 193 pages of ideas of how to do things better.
“We’ve always tried to be one step ahead in our 23 years, and this is no different.
“As we go forward, we’ve got to keep these changes happening and that’s a task for everyone.”
In June 2022, Our Community joined the world’s largest four-day-week trial, involving 70 UK companies. Many other Australian companies followed suit with a pilot that began a few months later.
The Our Community trial is linked to 4 Day Week Global and the 4 Day Week UK Campaign. Researchers at Cambridge University, Oxford University and Boston College are watching closely.
Results from that trial, released in February 2023, revealed that:
- 92% of organisations would continue the four-day week after the trial finished
- companies rated their experience 8.3/10
- business performance and productivity scored 7.5/10
- revenue rose by 1.4%
- staff departures dropped by 57%.
Global four-day trial getting great results
The 4 Day Week Global CEO Charlotte Lockhart welcomed Our Community’s early decision to make its move permanent, and said it would "have an impact on countless people around the world, as other organisations consider Our Community's learnings and successes in their own transition to reduced-hour, output-focused working".
More research by the global group showed that there had been a big boost to mental wellbeing, stress reduction and life satisfaction.
Ms Lockhart said, “The results prove what we already know and we look forward to expanding this research as other organisations from a range of industries and economies make the switch.
Our Community staff embrace the challenges of working less
Staff have not taken pay cuts or worked longer hours over fewer days. Instead, they have been given training and guidance to enable them to offset changes with innovations, efficiencies, and a clearer focus on the organisation's mission.
Stef Ball, the manager of the grants search database Funding Centre, hoped never to go back to working for five days, especially now she is using the spare time to hone her yoga moves.
"I keep telling my friends who asked me about this that, genuinely, I'm getting the exact same amount of work done. I really am working smarter, not harder."
She said that part of the organisation's training for the four-day transition had been to learn about her "chronotype", or the time of day she was best able to work.
"I know that I'm someone who works really well in the morning, I have a bit of a slump after lunch and then I have a bit of a second wind. I get the hard tasks done when my brain is functioning better and I save the more mundane tasks when it's not."
Data analyst Orgil Tumurbaatar said that he had focused on being as efficient as possible with his time, while cutting back the time spent on less important tasks.
While occasionally on a Friday he would log into his computer to polish off critical jobs, mostly he was able to spend his day off with his three-year-old daughter and to pick up his older kids from school. At the same time, this had freed up his wife to do work as a Mongolian language producer at SBS and have more of a social life.
"I've made her happier, and I'm closer to my kids."
SmartyGrants managed services officer Fiona Waugh said training in new ways of working had demonstrated that shorter meetings, for instance, "can work, and it has worked".
She said the four-day week was a big benefit for someone with a disability as she was able to schedule regular medical appointments on Fridays, thereby avoiding disruptions.
Institute of Community Directors trainer Ian Woodruff said he was a lot more energised and relaxed on Mondays as a result of the shift, which was a marked contrast to his former "six days a week" job.
"I guess the challenge to me was how do I know I'm doing enough work in the four days and not the five ... I think you do become more naturally more efficient because there's a bit of pressure to get everything done in the four days, so the meetings are shorter, and things are more efficient in the way that you handle processes."
SmartyGrants business analyst Sandra Sandra said many of her friends, also working mums, were shocked that a four-day week was even possible without a paycut or cramming more hours into fewer days.
"One of the things that makes it a lot easier is knowing your colleagues are also having the day off, so that takes the pressure off."
She said now the move was permanent, she was looking at ways of taking on bigger volunteer roles in the community and returning to study.
How has the trial progressed?
“The feeling from the staff has been very positive,” Mr Moriarty said.
“The six-month trial was expected to end in November 2022, but we didn’t need that long to make it permanent.
“Some of the immediate benefits have been that our staff have been able to just find time to relax, to take a breath, to read, or to do things that they would not normally have done. For instance, just being able to go out for lunch with friends on a Friday, or to catch up with family. In some cases, where their family is in the country, they’ve been able to leave a day earlier and have a full weekend with them.
“I think they're discovering that extra day is a significant amount of time and that they can do things they never thought were possible. It’s really interesting to see what they’re doing with that extra day off, which people are sharing in their weekly email updates.
“For some people hearing what others are doing is an incentive to ‘colour up their life’ a bit.”
“But from a work point of view, our organisation hasn’t ‘crashed’ as a result of losing a day. That’s partly because we’ve put a premium on people’s time, to be more organised, to cut back on meetings, to focus on what’s essential and to reduce wasted effort.
“A lot of that comes from the groundwork we did before starting the trial, including asking everyone in the business to nominate ways we could do things better. I’ve got 193 pages of suggestions, and that would not have happened if we weren’t moving to a four-day week.
“We’ve been guided in part by 4 Day Week Global, and provided training in everything from a ‘diary detox’ to ways to stay organised and focused on our most important goals.
“Those things are about making people more productive, and the organisation more effective.”
“Look, it's still a journey, it’s early on, but we're very positive about it.”
Why is the four-day week so attractive?
“We've had lots of media: from breakfast and TV news, to rural newspapers, and throughout our network. It's certainly the flavour of the month, but I hope it's going to be flavour of the future.
“I think the four-day work week is so attractive because it's been 167 years since we started the eight-hour day and yet nothing in the world has changed.
“We’re in Melbourne, which was the birthplace of the eight-hours movement, which argued for eight hours of work, rest and play. But it's a long time not to do anything innovative since then with the working week.
“Many companies talk about innovation, yet we're all still stuck working five days a week. Why? We needed to break it, and I think that it’s the revolution that had to happen.
What are the benefits of a four-day working week?
“People are definitely happier. One or two were a bit stressed at the start, but that's the inevitability of it. As we go on, I think it'll be a lot better for people to just discover a better future, what they do with that extra time to make them healthier, wealthier in their brain … and hopefully wiser.”
What are the drawbacks?
“I really don't think there are any drawbacks for us, but we always said that if we failed to maintain productivity then we will have failed with the pilot. That’s not something that happened, but we realised that we couldn’t just drop 20 per cent of our turnover, or create better lifestyles while the business suffers.
“We continue to identify ways to improve productivity, especially in the longer term. A key part of that is the fact that we've got buy-in from our unbelievably committed staff.
“We’re also confident that the four-day week will mean that we’re able to attract and keep the best staff in an environment in which people can expect a better work-life balance for their contribution.
“But some companies might struggle to do this. These are the companies that aren’t ready for it: if they haven’t prepared to make productivity improvements, or don’t have a workforce that could implement it, and aren’t highly committed, I think they would struggle.
“With a big organisation, say the size of a bank or something where there's thousands of staff, it's always going to be hard to get that buy-in from everyone, when the joint commitment is not there to start with. That’d be a monumental task, but not impossible.”
What does the research say?
“The research clearly shows that you can make significant productivity improvements without any loss of production of people’s work. In fact, there's evidence that says you might pick up some additional productivity because people are going to be better, more committed, and their brains are less frazzled by the pressures of work.
“Beyond the formal studies, I don't think you could ever not be braced for a four-day week when you've gone through two years of a pandemic. We survived that, so I think we should be able to embrace this quickly and do it well.
“The primary benefit I see, and the research shows, are the health benefits, both physical and mental health, at a time when the rate of mental health issues is significantly increasing.
“We need time to take a breath, reflect, and catch up on what's going on in our own lives, and that extra day gives everyone that chance to not feel the pressure of what they have to do. Coming to work can be a tough gig for some people. There are many pressures, deadlines, difficult staff, difficult bosses and difficult customers. If you don't take a breather, it will catch up with you.
“Iceland, I think, is close to 86% of the workforce moving to shorter hours. And if they can do it, there’s nothing stopping the rest of the world from adopting it.”
Do you think it will take off in Australia?
“We’re happy to be the only Australian company involved in the UK trial, and one of the first companies to take this on.
“During the lockdowns in Victoria, we were thinking about how we could do a better return to work, contacted the leaders of the movement, and started planning our transition to the four-day week.
“The global group was keen to add our experience to their research, which will help inform the process for the 30 other Australian organisations that joined the global movement in August, but really that's just a drop in the ocean compared to the number of businesses that should be involved.
“I think it should be a lot more, but hopefully this first wave will be the ones that make it a lot better for the next generation of companies, whether those are commercial businesses, not-for-profits, for-purpose organisations or government agencies.
“I'm really hopeful that it should take off in Australia. It’s an example of real innovation in the workforce.
“This is life-changing, not just for people, but it’s a total rethink of the way we should do business.
“Some people think this won’t work, but they’re probably the same people who didn’t believe in climate change, or addressing disadvantage, when all the evidence points to the need for action. Real change can’t be just a one-off effort but has to be systemic.”
About Our Community
Our Community is a Melbourne-based software firm and social enterprise which helps not-for-profits with training, resources, data and tech solutions, and hosts the grants distribution platform SmartyGrants. | More about Our Community's agenda
Selected media links: The Project Sept '23 + June '23 | The Age in-depth explainer + November '22 + Feb '22 | Channel 7 + Sept '22 + Feb '23 | Nine's The Today Show + June '22 | Sky News commentary | Daily Mail | SBS | Australian Financial Review + May '22 | The Canberra Times | Pedestrian TV | House of Wellness | Daily Star (UK)