‘The old ways of working are outdated’: Unilever is experimenting with a 4-day workweek

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Starting next week, employees of consumer goods multinational Unilever in New Zealand will work four days a week—and be paid for five—in a yearlong trial, the company said on Tuesday.

The move is an “experiment” to see if shortening the workweek by one day can “bring material change in the way [employees] work,” Unilever New Zealand managing director Nick Bangs said in a statement.

“We believe the old ways of working are outdated and no longer fit for purpose,” Bangs said.

Unilever has 81 employees in New Zealand. Next December, when the trial ends, the firm will evaluate whether a four-day workweek should be extended to its 155,000 employees across the globe.

In May, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said companies should consider implementing four-day workweeks in order to boost employee productivity, provide workers with a better work/life balance, and encourage domestic tourism to make up for a pandemic-induced lack of foreign visitors.

“I’d really encourage people to think about [four-day workweeks] if you’re an employer and in a position to do so,” Ardern said in May.

Bangs said the pandemic’s upheaval of traditional working practices sparked Unilever’s decision to try out the four-day week in New Zealand.

Local New Zealand estate planning firm Perpetual Guardian tested a four-day workweek in 2018, reporting a 20% increase in productivity as well as lower stress levels and greater job satisfaction among its staff. The trial gained global attention, and the company’s founder said there was “no downside” to the shortened week. Later that year, Perpetual Guardian made the four-day workweek permanent.

Unilever’s Bangs said the company “drew inspiration” from Perpetual Guardian for the shortened workweek.

Shorter workweeks are not a new idea. The British economist John Maynard Keynes, writing in 1930, predicted that by 2030, technology would have advanced to a point where most people would work 15-hour weeks while productivity rose.

In 1956, then-U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon said a four-day workweek would arrive in the U.S. in the “not too distant future.”

Labor activists and environmentalists have advocated for four-day weeks on the grounds that they benefit workers and reduce emissions. “Four-day Work Week Improves Environment,” declared a 1997 Journal of Environmental Health article.

Employers that oppose a four-day week have argued that employees end up working less and that a shorter week could make companies less competitive because they won’t be as available to customers.

Last year, Microsoft Japan experimented with a four-day workweek and said productivity jumped 40% and efficiency improved in other areas, including a 23% drop in electricity costs.

Microsoft Japan gave employees Fridays off during the trial, while Perpetual Guardian allowed employees to choose any one day per week to take off.

Bangs said the company wants to change how work is done and avoid a situation in which employees work longer hours to make up for the shorter week, which he said would “miss the point” of the experiment. Unilever is collaborating with the University of Technology Business School in Sydney to measure the results of the experiment.

Unilever’s trial makes it the first multinational in New Zealand to experiment with a four-day workweek. The goods giant owns some of the world’s best-known brands, including Lipton tea, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, Heinz ketchup, and Dove beauty products.

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