Business

Unilever is testing a four-day work week in New Zealand

Posted December 1, 2020 1:00 a.m. EST

— Unilever has become the latest major company to hop on the four-day work week bandwagon, lending credence to the idea that flexible working is here to stay.

On Tuesday, the distributor of Lipton's tea, Dove soap and Ben & Jerry's ice cream announced it would test shorter working hours for all its employees in New Zealand, letting them decide which four days they'd prefer to work each week.

The trial starts this month, and runs for a year. The consumer giant has 81 staff members in the country, who will be allowed to work compressed schedules with full pay as the University of Technology Sydney in Australia helps track their progress.

Unilever said that if all goes well, the company will consider whether to shake up its workflow on a wider scale.

"We hope the trial will result in Unilever being the first global company to embrace ways of working that provide tangible benefits for staff and for business," Nick Bangs, managing director of Unilever New Zealand, said in a statement.

"This is an exciting moment for our team and a validation of the catalytic role Covid-19 has played in shaking up standard working practices."

Unilever isn't the first firm to adopt the practice in New Zealand. In 2018, local company Perpetual Guardian, which helps customers manage their wills and estates, also held a widely cited two-month trial of the concept. The firm said it was so successful, it later decided to make it permanent.

Bangs said that his team was inspired by the findings from that case study, and had started to "believe the old ways of working are outdated."

Even New Zealand's leader, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, has raised the idea as one that might help the economy recover from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

In May, Ardern shared the suggestion while discussing ways to revive domestic tourism in her country. She said that while businesses had their own discretion to make such decisions, the idea had merit in that it might give domestic travelers "flexibility in terms of their travel and their leave."

Big companies elsewhere are also starting to join the trend. Last year, Microsoft's team in Japan experimented by shutting down its offices every Friday in August, and giving all employees an extra day off each week.

The results were promising: While the amount of time spent at work was cut dramatically, productivity — measured by sales per employee — went up by almost 40% compared to the same period the previous year, the company said.

As a result, Microsoft announced that it would follow up with another experiment in Japan, and also asked other companies to join the initiative.

Four-day work weeks have been touted as a way to improve work-life balance. Some businesses recently started trying it out to help fight burnout caused by the challenges of working during the pandemic.

Other companies are leaning into remote working for similar reasons. On Tuesday, Japanese firm Nomura Holdings said that it was considering introducing a new arrangement, which would allow workers to spend up to 60% of their time away from the office each month.

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