The full-time fallacy: Why Laura Prael’s business will always run four days a week

four day workweek

LEP Digital founder Laura Prael.

I recently listed two job advertisements on SEEK for roles within my growing digital agency — namely, a digital marketing manager and digital marketing and social media assistant.

They both looked like any other job post for an agency role, listing desired skills, prerequisites and rah-rah about the company culture and perks.

But there was one key difference. They were both advertised as four-day-a-week roles, Monday through to Thursday.

Remuneration was competitive, and this wasn’t a full-time role dressed in sheep’s clothing (an ‘I’ll pay you for four days but you’ll actually work five’ situation).

Between the two roles, I interviewed nine people. When it came to question time, each person asked me why the roles were only four days a week. Was it because there wasn’t enough work to support the fifth day? Would the role grow to full-time? 

Before COVID-19, the appetite for working four days a week was not embraced by everyone who applied for positions within my company.

For many years, I felt pressure from some of my employees to develop their roles into five-day-a-week ones for the threat they would leave.

They, like so many others before them, subscribed to the quintessential middle-class dream: the full-time 9-5.

It’s a goal that’s peddled to us from a young age by our parents, our educators and society at large. Get a Monday-to-Friday job, work until you’re 65, and live happily ever after in a five-bedroom suburban home and take your boat out on the weekends, we’re told.

I understand that for many, especially on the surface, the appeal of a full-time job is a financial requirement. But, what if you could make a living wage (and then some) and still have time for living? 

Having built my career in large businesses (although SMEs are not immune), I’m all too familiar with the rampant celebration of overworking particularly in Australia.

Capitalism has many of us believing the only way to get ahead and be successful in life is to pour everything we have into our jobs: come in early, leave late, work on weekends, and always have our phone at the ready to respond to inbox requests. Prioritise your work above all else and you’ll reap the rewards later.

I was encouraged by employers and colleagues to put up photos of my material goals around my desk, like a mechanical lure dangled in front of a greyhound that was always just out of reach. If you run fast enough for long enough, you can buy the car of your dreams or go on that holiday to Tahiti. 

And it’s not just happening in workplaces.

Anyone who’s on LinkedIn can relate to being peppered with posts in their feed from self-titled ‘workaholics’ who revel in bragging about their ‘early bird gets the worm’ photos at the office at dawn. It’s that ‘first-in, last-out’ culture that will supposedly help you to stand out from your competition.

And for many years, I perpetuated this attitude. I wore tank tops that bandied slogans like ‘hard work wins’ and ‘no rest for the wicked’, and I’d proudly talk to friends about work assignments that I was working on after hours.

I quickly progressed in my career and won the respect of my professional peers but, on the inside, I didn’t feel good.

I often felt sick from stress and fatigue, and continually beat myself up for not doing enough or being enough.

By my mid-20s, having worked for five years in corporate roles, I was diagnosed with generalised anxiety.

And it was around this time, working in a particularly stressful agency role in Sydney, that I started losing my hair and my appetite. I dropped eight kilos in the space of a few weeks, and was riddled with fear about attending work.

I was on a race with myself to be more productive, more successful, more energetic, more technical, better than the rest. And in a digital field that’s rapidly changing, this anxiety of always being behind is compounded.

And it never stops. There’s no endpoint where you can look back and say: ‘I made it’.

While my agency’s four-day-working-week structure has been met with much curiosity, and some criticism, it’s not a new idea.

A study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development of the world’s most productive countries ranked European countries, including Norway, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands, in the top positions, with an average workweek sitting at 27 hours.

Conversely, Japan, a nation notoriously known for overworked employees, ranks as the 20th out of 35 countries for productivity.

Australia isn’t too much better, sitting at 14th position. 

The study has the world’s longest average workweek at 41.2 hours, which is common for full-time and some part-time roles in Australia, especially in the private sector.

However, Luxembourg, the most productive country on this list, has an average workweek of 29 hours — one hour less than my team’s average workweek. 

And, while this concept has been slow to catch on, progressive companies around the world are trialling reduced hours and measuring the results.

Estate Planning company Perpetual Guardian, based in New Zealand, trialled a four day work week in 2019. It found that not only did employees maintain the same productivity level, but they also showed improvements in job satisfaction, teamwork, work-life balance and company loyalty.

Employee stress also decreased from 45% to 38%.

But, most interesting to me, were the significant increases in employee commitment and empowerment.

Whether or not employers value the byproducts of shorter working hours, one thing is clear: working longer hours doesn’t necessarily result in increased productivity.

But despite a century’s worth of studies that have shown that working long hours results in a variety of negative consequences for both employees and employers, the average number of hours that Australians work has been steadily increasing over the last decades.

According to the OECD, 13% of the workforce — 19% of men and 6% of women — are working 50 hours or more.

While I don’t believe in long hours, I do believe in hard work.

One of my company’s values is quality work, and we have won awards for the work that we produce and the outstanding service that we provide.

I’m still ambitious, driven, and want to change the world. I have big dreams and so many things that I plan to achieve in my career.

But I don’t want to die for it and will not see my team suffer to relentlessly drive it. I’ve proven that you can work 30 hours a week, be financially secure, and live a healthy and fulfilled life.

Because my identity is more than my job. It’s my beliefs, my passions, my hobbies, my social circles and what I give back to my world that makes me who I am.

Having varied interests and experiences outside of work are essential ingredients to produce good results at work.

Why? Because spending time on your hobbies awakens your creativity, provides you with fresh perspectives and boosts confidence to solve problems.

When employees don’t have time for hobbies, their work suffers and businesses pay a price. 

It was staggering to learn that of most of the candidates I interviewed, especially for the junior role, many could not name a single hobby that they actively pursued outside of work.

The surprised look on their faces seemed to say, ‘why is this relevant to the position I’m interviewing for?’

But, in fact, it was the most relevant of all of the interview questions. I already knew they had the skills to do the job, but I wanted to know what drove them outside of work — who they really were and what was important to them.

Since COVID-19, the idea of a work-life balance has been reinvigorated.

Many employers are now scrambling to understand how they can keep their teams engaged from a distance, improve productivity (or at least maintain it), increase morale, and keep profits churning.

At the same time, employees are placing a higher value on their time, making more considered decisions about where they live and work, and what it means to be fulfilled in uncertain times.

Now more than ever, it’s our responsibility as employers to support our employees in any way we can.

And, if that leads to an increase in productivity, it’s a win-win in my books. 

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