Unilever will give the push for a four-day working week one of its biggest boosts yet when the consumer goods group launches a year-long trial of the practice in New Zealand.
The company behind Lipton tea and Dove soap will from next week start paying its 81 staff in New Zealand for five days while letting them work four.
After 12 months, Unilever says it will look at the lessons the experiment offers for how the rest of its 155,000 employees work.
“I’ve got colleagues all over the world who are saying ‘Please don’t stuff this thing up because we want to have a go at it some time in the future’,” said Nick Bangs, Unilever’s New Zealand managing director.
Mr Bangs told the Financial Times that most of his staff sold or distributed Unilever goods and he was “very conscious” that more thought would be needed to make a four-day week work at manufacturing sites. The company does not carry out manufacturing in New Zealand.
His colleagues would still have to produce the same output, he added, but if they ended up working four very long days “then we’ve completely missed the point”. “This is about changing the way we work,” he said.
The group’s move is among the most ambitious efforts so far to test a practice that advocates say makes workers happier, healthier and more productive.
A number of large companies have begun trials in the past two years, even though critics argue the practice would send many businesses into a loss.
Microsoft said employee productivity rose when it offered a four-day week in August last year to its staff in Japan, home to some of the world’s longest working hours. US burger chain Shake Shack also started trialling the measure last year to see if it could help to recruit and retain staff.
Mr Bangs, who is thinking of taking Wednesdays or Thursdays off himself, said he had been inspired by Andrew Barnes, founder of Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand estate planning company.
It drew global headlines in 2018 when it said that giving its 240 staff a day off at full pay for eight weeks had led to such big productivity gains it was making the change permanent.
Mr Barnes has since set up a non-profit group to promote the four-day week, and in May New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern suggested such measures might bolster domestic tourism.
Supporters of a four-day working week point to research suggesting the financial benefits of more productive and healthier staff are significant. The system’s ability to cut sickness levels and recruitment costs while boosting staff retention and efficiency could help save UK businesses £104bn a year, a report from Henley Business School argued last year.
However, some efforts suggest the scheme is hard to implement.
In London last year, the Wellcome Trust biomedical research foundation concluded it could not even conduct a trial of the four-day week without “an unacceptable disruption” to its business.
Mr Bangs said the pandemic had shaken traditional thinking about working practices but had not been the main driver of a trial for which Alan Jope, Unilever’s chief executive, had offered “overwhelming support”.
Mr Jope said in that summer that he did not think Unilever would ever go back to a time when 100 per cent of office workers’ time was spent in the office.
“We see a hybrid future of work, where people might spend a couple of days in the office and two or three days at home or working remotely,” he said.
“This has unlocked tremendous productivity and flexibility in the Unilever team.”