Digital agency Versa shuts its doors every Wednesday. Employees at the busy maker of apps, augmented reality products and websites work 37.5 hours a week over four days in a radical 20-month experiment that has seen profit and productivity soar. After ABC’s The Business interviewed chief executive Kathryn Blackham in April last year, she said things got crazy.
“A lot has happened since!” laughed Ms Blackham, reciting a schedule that has seen her lecture UK Members of Parliament, win international awards, present at conferences and cop an inbox overflowing with corporate human resources leaders wanting to catch up on the project.
The concept is brutally simple. On Wednesdays at Versa there are no client meetings, no deliveries, no pitches to clients and no expectation of checking emails.
After a year, the data was in.
“We are three times more profitable than we were last year, we have grown by 30 or 40 per cent in the last year in terms of revenue, and we have got happier staff who are much more productive,” Ms Blackham said in April.
“So all of the factors that you would have thought would have gone down because we’re working 20 per cent less — in theory, we’re working one day less, although we are doing longer days on the other days — actually we’ve seen them increase dramatically.”
About to head off on a summer break, Ms Blackham reflected that the company’s shift had reverberated across the advertising industry and beyond.
“More importantly for me, it’s really started a conversation about how we’re going to move forward in the industry,” she said.
“But there’s been the most interest outside our industry, [rather] than inside it.”
Four-day week makes waves in the UK
Much interest has come from the United Kingdom after the BBC syndicated the ABC’s April report about Versa.
Ms Blackham spoke to MPs and leaders of UK Labour about her experience as the party took a policy of a 10-year transition to a four-day week to the recent election. (Labour was trounced, although it seems unlikely that policy was a major factor in an election dominated by Brexit).
She also spoke to high-level leaders at UK retailer Morrisons. The supermarket giant was considering the plan for its office staff, but with a key flaw.
“They were going to do it for the office staff, but not the leadership team,” she said.
“I told them straight out, ‘That’s not going to work’. Because if the leadership team are [present] it just cascades down from there.”
Other countries trying shorter work weeks
University of Melbourne professor of management Peter Gahan said average working hours were creeping up in Australia, at the same time as a growing group of people report underemployment — a desire for more hours.
International examples are mixed. To redress unemployment in France, the standard work week has been reduced to 35 hours.
Some local government areas in Sweden have been experimenting with shorter working weeks for the same reason, and to improve wellbeing for employees.
“France had a short-term effect where, in fact, we saw unemployment rates for different groups, particularly young people, begin to fall, but that wasn’t sustained over time,” Professor Gahan said in the original report.
There have also been concerns about labour costs hampering the ability of France to compete within the European Union and globally, and big business pushed back on the regulation.
In Sweden, “the jury is still out”, Professor Gahan said.
An experiment in major regional city Gothenburg saw reduced working hours for some workers, to compare them to workers whose hours were not reduced.
“The preliminary results from that experiment suggest, in fact, they were able to maintain productivity levels by and large, and there were some benefits for workers in terms of wellbeing and other types of outcomes,” Professor Gahan said.