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The nine-day fortnight and the four-day week: lessons for the legal profession

28 Mar 2024

| Author: Brenda Newth

Earlier this year, mid-tier accounting firm Grant Thornton announced it was trialling a nine-day fortnight, in what is believed to be a first for the professional services sector in New Zealand.

It follows a similar trial by Grant Thornton Australia, announced in March 2023. In both cases, employees will receive pay for the full 10 days, yet work only nine.

Staff wellbeing is the driver, says Russell Moore, national managing partner, Grant Thornton New Zealand.

“With so many of the professional services’ workforce reporting burnout and its associated physical and mental health issues, we feel it’s time to lead meaningful change within the industry. We want to deliver the best possible outcomes for our people and our clients; in today’s climate this requires listening to people’s needs and taking some bold steps. This is the gift of time. “Our people will benefit from a little bit of extra time to pursue hobbies, catch up on personal admin or to simply decompress and recharge. It also aligns with our progressive family workplace policies, including flexible working, and our industry-leading parental leave policy,” he says.

Flexible working practices were already in place with Grant Thornton operating a 3, 2, 1 hybrid working model where people can choose which three days they spend in the office each week, two where they work from home and the one day a week where the entire team is present.

Leveraging lessons from Grant Thornton Australia, meant that the New Zealand trial could be set up quickly.

Moore says his Australian counterparts have reaped the rewards of their trial, experiencing an increase in employee engagement and decreases in absenteeism and staff turnover.

“It’s also strengthened their employer brand and provided a competitive advantage when it comes to recruiting and retaining top talent at all levels of their business,” he says.

To ready the New Zealand business, a series of workshops was held with partners and senior management teams to explore how the trial would work for each service line and where efficiencies could be found so client-facing time and deliverables wouldn’t be impacted.

“The workshops have been invaluable. We were able to redesign how we work to ensure we will work smarter, not harder, during the trial.” At this stage, Grant Thornton is committing to using Friday as its recharge day, to more easily track progress.

“Naturally, this doesn’t mean our offices are closed every second Friday. Some teams will assign alternate Fridays to each of their people, others will all work 4.5 days each week.”

Collaboration and technology play a part too, with every team member across what’s happening with a client and able to field calls or emails if they arise on any given Friday.

So far, reaction from clients has been overwhelmingly positive, says Moore.

“They appreciate this is also very much a client-centric initiative where work has been done to create time efficiencies in other areas of the business so we can achieve this new way of working.” When the time comes to evaluate the trial, Moore says success will be measured through sick days taken and staff engagement surveys.

“We’ll also be looking at metrics like utilisation and productivity as well as staff turnover. We will be closely engaging with clients throughout the trial to ensure the quality we deliver and their experience meets their expectations.”

 

The pioneer

Someone who knows a thing or two about flexible working is the four-day-week pioneer, Andrew Barnes, founder and principal shareholder of Perpetual Guardian.

In the pre-pandemic days of 2018, Perpetual Guardian attracted global attention as one of the first big companies to switch to a four-day working week.

Barnes says the idea for it came from studies that showed true productivity was much less than the eight-hour work day. He says modern, open-plan office layouts are highly disruptive, meeting software defaults to an hour when half that time will often do and then there’s the impact of home issues and long commutes.

“I wondered what would happen if I made a pact with my people and said: ‘I’ll gift you a day off if you can ensure you’ll get all the work you would get done in a five-day period done in four days. And it will require process changes, attitudinal changes, behavioural changes, organisational changes but you tell me how you’re going to do it’.”

Barnes announced that Perpetual Guardian were going to try, with no idea about how it was going to do it. He told his staff: “If you take this seriously, I will too. Let’s work out whether we can do things in a different way.

The following year, a 2019 article in the UK’s Guardian reported that Perpetual Guardian had seen a 20% rise in productivity and appeared to have increased profits and improved wellbeing. Staff stress levels were down from 45% to 38% and work-life balance scores increased from 54% to 78%.

Barnes says that Perpetual Guardian follows the 100:80:100 model, paying 100% of pay for 80% time, provided it gets 100% of output. People choose when to take time off. “You actually find that people’s time off is spread. The key thing is, you’re giving people the time off that is important to them.”

Six years on, Barnes says there is no downside to Perpetual Guardian’s four-day week.

“I’ve been running businesses for 40 years. I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done, no doubt about it. What we are really talking about – at its heart – is about understanding output and productivity.” It’s applicable for law firms, he says.

“Anyone who says you can’t do it in a law firm isn’t understanding the process. Time allocation, in which we use six-minute blocks, is really about understanding the allocation of time that people are putting on tasks. That has no relevance for what you should be charging them.

“What we do in the law…we get hung up on the time allocation bit, which isn’t the point. And if you can do tasks better and faster, you wouldn’t drop the price. The more progressive law and accounting firms all over the world which are moving to this four-day model have all realised that time data is not relevant.” Barnes’ top tip for those considering a fourday week model is not to overthink it.

“The basic tip is that this is something that genuinely has to come from the workforce, not the leadership team. I say that because what stops an individual from being productive varies from person to person, and is known to the employee, but often not known to the leadership.

“Of course, what we have to do is incentivise it, by saying, ‘if you can do your job in four days rather than five, instead of the company getting the uplift, that benefit comes to you in the form of a day off. Who would’ve thought that more rested, more engaged, more enthusiastic, more collegial employees would end up being more productive? It’s almost too difficult to believe!” he says.

“You’ll get better talent, you’ll be able to close open positions faster, you get less staff turnover.” A high degree of mutual trust is required, Barnes says.

“I’ve got to trust my employees will take it seriously and do it the right way and they’ve got to be confident that I am not using this as a tool to find out how to make the organisation more efficient.

“This is actually a very mature conversation between leadership and employees. We see there are material benefits for each side, but we’ve got to work together. There isn’t that level of supervision. You are giving them the challenge, you have to set appropriate benchmarks and then you have to empower them to get on with it.”

Barnes notes that other four-day-week benefits include:

  • improved collegiality, teamwork and creativity
  • greater cross-training across roles
  • more internal promotions
  • stronger, more cohesive teams
  • greater brand recognition

And if that’s not enough to convince bosses, how about this research from international HR expert Josh Bersin? Bersin says the four-day-work week is an idea whose time has come. “Under the right conditions it really works…with improvements in employee health and wellbeing, increases in productivity and overall improvement in revenue, profit and customer service.” ■

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