Time Change

Project Teams Must Prepare to Adapt to Shorter Workweeks

 
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Less might be more when it comes to workweeks. Organizations that have abandoned the standard five-day, 40-hour-a-week template in favor of an abbreviated work schedule are touting higher productivity, lower employee burnout, and an easier time recruiting and retaining talent.

In late 2019, Microsoft Japan completed a pilot project to move select teams to a four-day week—and saw productivity surge 40 percent. Restaurant chain Shake Shack rolled out a four-day week in select Las Vegas, Nevada, USA locations last year and now has adopted the policy for roughly one-third of its outlets. And when the New Zealand estate-planning company Perpetual Guardian concluded its trial of a four-day week, the results were so successful it adopted a 32-hour structure permanently.

Although companies with shorter work schedules are in the minority, the trend is growing. In the United States, a 2019 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 15 percent of companies offer workweeks of 32 hours or less—up from 12 percent in 2018.

“Right now, companies are faced with a series of challenges: the need to cut costs, upskill their workers and find the right people. Experimenting with a shorter workweek is part of that,” says Linda Nazareth, a principal at Relentless Economics and senior fellow for economics and population change at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Ms. Nazareth notes that while truncated workweeks have deep roots in certain professions, they're less common in project-based environments. But with the proper upfront planning, “it can work in project management,” she says. Here, some lessons learned from those who have tried—and thrived.

Facilitate Focus

Nearly half of full-time workers believe they could do their job in less than five hours a day if they had fewer interruptions, according to a global survey by the Workforce Institute. The biggest takeaway: Employees want more than shorter shifts.

Work could be considerably more efficient if “organizations took the time to streamline processes, use automation to eliminate low-value tasks, and consider innovative scheduling, meeting and email practices,” says Joyce Maroney, executive director of the Workforce Institute at Kronos Inc., Lowell, Massachusetts, USA.

At Microsoft Japan, for instance, the pilot project to test shorter workweeks included capping meetings at 30 minutes each. “This practice might not work for every organization, but it illustrates the importance of evaluating your current work practices for productivity-improvement opportunities before you make this switch,” Ms. Maroney says.

Clarify Expectations

Project and people managers are uniquely qualified to usher in such significant change initiatives—and have them stick. That's because “they're already accustomed to articulating goals and timelines and holding people accountable for meeting those expectations. This skill set is even more important in a flexible work environment,” Ms. Maroney says.

While generating buy-in among employees for a shortened workweek might seem effortless, realizing the enterprise benefits requires setting and enforcing expectations. At Planio, a startup in Berlin, Germany that has adopted an abbreviated workweek, team members are asked to sign on to a communication plan that details both when work should happen and why it might sometimes be necessary to work outside those hours to meet a pressing deadline.

Solicit Feedback

Organization is necessary to kick-start the change, but feedback is crucial to keeping it going, according to Planio CEO Jan Schulz-Hofen.

Project leaders should regularly assess: Are team members stretched too thin on a high-stakes initiative? Are external stakeholders frustrated that the company is dark on what would typically be a workday? Problems aren't a mandate to abandon the initiative altogether, but they do mean iteration is in order.

And iterating can be worth it. As Mr. Schulz-Hofen wrote in a blog post to employees: “Working longer hours isn't a sustainable source of competitive advantage. But, almost ironically, working less is.”

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—Jan Schulz-Hofen, Planio, Berlin, Germany

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