Unilever NZ grew revenue and satisfied its business targets with employees working shorter weeks. Photo: Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash

Unilever New Zealand has declared its four-day week trial a success, with the conglomerate rolling it out across the Tasman

Fewer meetings, less email, adoption of chat apps – the answers to your standard workplace gripes, but also the key recommendations out of Unilever’s successful four-day week trial.

The multinational consumer goods company carried out an 18-month four-day week pilot in New Zealand, which it declared a success this morning.

The trial saw Unilever New Zealand’s 80 employees receive their full salaries while working 80 percent of the time with a commitment to deliver 100 percent productivity.

Ultimately the company managed to hit business targets including revenue growth while lowering both absenteeism and stress by a third. Feelings of work and life conflict fell by two-thirds.

All stakeholders and partners agreed the New Zealand team had completed work on time and to a high quality.

Unilever New Zealand managing director Cameron Heath said the trial had been a key contributor to Unilever managing to retain and attract staff through the ‘great resignation’, with staff staying with the company for longer than previously. “Covid really changed people’s perception of what they want out of a career and how they want to balance work and life.”

Motive to change

Projects, processes and protocols that added less value throughout the week were removed to free up time on things that really mattered, and final recommendations for change included less frequent but more efficient meetings, less reliance on emails and adoption of software like Microsoft Teams.

Heath said some of the elements, particularly time spent in meetings, were obvious from the feedback it had received before shifting to the four-day model.

“We knew we were spending time in meetings, we knew that was inefficient and something to change, and the four-day week became the catalyst to drive people to have to do that.

“It was really interesting that when you empower people, when you say to people, you’ve got some skin in the game, if you can find a way to bring solutions to become more efficient and more productive within four days, you can have that fifth day or you can have that additional time as a gift, it really acts as a catalyst for people to change their behaviour.”

The New Zealand branch was chosen for its small size and willingness to commit to the trial, but the conglomerate is expanding it to Australia where it has well over 800 staff, compared to just 80 locally.

Heath said he wanted the trial to be a source of inspiration to the broader New Zealand business community, having taken a lot of inspiration from four-day week champion and Perpetual Guardian founder Andrew Barnes.

“I think being a larger global organisation we can also inspire other New Zealand-based businesses with a global representation that you can try something that feels a little bit out there, that you can do something a bit different in New Zealand for your staff and create an example which can then be rolled out around the world.”

Last year Barnes, who shifted Perpetual Guardian to a four-day week in 2018 and describes himself as an architect of the global four-day week movement, told Newsroom New Zealand was watching from the sidelines as other countries forged ahead with the approach.

He referenced successes in Iceland, where roughly 86 percent of the working population was working shorter hours or had the right to shorten their working hours.

An Employers and Manufacturers Union spokesperson said it had been approached by plenty of members interested in the four-day workweek, but that there was no one-size-fits-all approach.

They said employers typically wanted to pursue the four-day week or other dynamic workplace options to ensure people were happy, healthy and as, if not more, productive.

“With the labour market as it is, the struggle is real for companies to keep and develop their staff to ensure they’re sustainable into the future, especially at a time where the after-effects of Covid-19 are still very real.”

Andrew Bevin is an Auckland-based business reporter who covers major industries, markets, regulation, aged care and fisheries.

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