The four-day working week movement is gaining traction. From a speck of an island at the bottom of the world, one man is intent on change
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Walking through rows of white-netted grapevines, Andrew Barnes pauses to lift the fabric and pick a syrah grape. Originally, his idea had been to simply plant a few vines in his back yard. “I’d always wanted some grapes on a property,” he says.
But the project snowballed: He leased one vineyard, then two. “We realised suddenly that we were producing a huge amount of wine – it had gone from being what was having a few grapes on the property to a wine lake,” Barnes laughs, looking around at the hillside of vines. “I’m flippin’ hopeless – it goes out of control.”
Barnes, one of the pioneers of the four-day week, has an apparent penchant for projects that metastasise far beyond their original boundaries. As with grapevines, so with the four-day week.
What began as an experiment with one of his own businesses in 2018 has expanded into a rapidly multiplying series of international pilots in Ireland, the US, UK, Israel, and Australia-Pacific regions, working with universities around the world to study the results. 4 Day Week Global, the non-profit Barnes co-founded with Charlotte Lockhart, is expecting to run trials with 300-500 companies internationally this year.
Today, he is speaking from one of his vineyards on Waiheke Island, a tiny island off the north-eastern coast of New Zealand. On the scale of a globe, it’s a speck of land off the coast of a dot, and it is from here that Barnes hopes to transform the world of work and wrench the world of employment away from the deadlock of 40 hours.
“There’s a lot of naysayers,” he says. “But there’s now a lot of evidence to say this works – so what’s to be lost in trying? Because you know, nobody ever advanced humankind by saying it’s not gonna work.”
Around the world, the 4-day week movement has been gathering steam. Barnes was at the vanguard back in 2018, after reading an Economist article saying many workers were only productive for 1.5-3 hours a day. It struck him that by clawing back even one extra hour a day, the company would be more productive.
Barnes decided to trial reduced hours for all 240 employees at one of his businesses, trusts firm Perpetual Guardian. He instituted an 80-100-100 rule: 80% hours, to accomplish 100% of the work, for 100% pay. The experiment worked. Productivity rose, staff were happier. He made the change permanent.
Since then, the idea has only grown in popularity, Microsoft Japan trialled the concept in 2019 and said productivity jumped 40%. Unilever New Zealand announced a year-long trial of the four-day week in 2021; by the end of the year, they had opted to extend it. In Iceland, trials of a 35-hour work week run by Reykjavík city council and the national government included about 1% of Iceland’s working population. In Spain, the government accepted proposals for a pilot where the government would support a national private-sector trial of the four-day week last year.
Barnes’ conviction has only solidified over time – if implemented properly, he says, it’s a no-lose proposition. A National Business Review rich-lister with a reported net worth of around $180m, he is adamant that it’s as much a business priority as a social one.
“Right at the heart of this is a rational business decision,” he says, “as well as being probably one of the most socially responsible and environmentally responsible things you could do.”
Gregarious and expressive, Barnes speaks with the conviction of an evangelist. His own approach and motivations were partly forged as a young investment banker in the UK, working punishing hours in a brutally competitive sector. In the years since, little seems to have changed at those firms – last year, a leaked internal survey from Goldman Sachs reported “inhumane,” abusive conditions and 100-hour weeks. In his memoir, Barnes denounces a culture that treats people like race horses: whipping them to do your bidding, running them down until they flame out.
His own great conversion moment came in Sydney, where he had reached the coveted level of executive director at enormous global financial services group Macquarie. He loathed it. Walking along the city shoreline, a line from Nick Hornby’s book Fever Pitch kept running through his head: “You can’t remember whether life’s shit because Arsenal are shit, or the other way around.”
“I hated my life. I hated everything,” Barnes says. “The question was, why do I hate Sydney? Do I hate Sydney because Sydney is awful? Or is Sydney awful because my life is awful?”
He concluded it was the latter. Barnes left investment banking to take time off, and vowed not to replicate the culture at Macquarie, which he said encouraged overwork. Going forward, he says, “I adopted a philosophy that said: I would think about what Macquarie would do, and then do precisely the opposite.”
Now, Barnes is seeking a revolution of the week as it currently stands. He sees it as a tired, unimaginative hangover of early 20th-century assembly lines: “an arbitrary construct based on repetitive manufacturing,” he says, leaning forward at one of the vineyard’s outdoor tables to run off a string of rhetorical questions.
“What Henry Ford did in the 1920s – even then, why was it relevant to office work? Why was it relevant for agriculture? Why was it relevant for anything?” Barnes asks. “We decided to have a working week of 40 hours per week – who decided that was it? Why is that the pinnacle of human achievement?”
Western societies have made various unsuccessful attempts to dislodge their routines from what historian David Henkin dubs our “recalcitrant calendar unit”. The Soviet Union spent more than a decade experimenting with the nepreryvka, a 5-day week without shared weekends. Post-revolution, the French attempted a 10-day week as part of a broader project to de-Christianise the calendar. Both failed to stick. The 40-hour working week, moored within its seven-day cycle, has proven startlingly stubborn.
Any fundamental change to the way we arrange working time can be hard to get one’s head around, says Dr Laura Giurge, an assistant professor at London School of Economics, who studies time, wellbeing and the future of work. “The long-term benefits of just trying it can really outweigh any potential cost. So I think [the barrier] primarily could be psychological. It’s just the inertia: oh, I’m not gonna try because what I have now is doing OK.”
For some managers, maintaining the status quo seems easier than having to establish new ways of measuring what a productive worker really is. “We’ve seen leaders staying a little bit in the past,” she says. “Because it’s really hard to measure performance nowadays, they continue to rely on old metrics of performance, such as valuing long work hours or instant responsiveness – as opposed to really focusing on what people actually do, and what’s the quality of the work that they do.”
Giurge is a research affiliate of Oxford University’s wellbeing centre, where she works as part of the academic board for 4 Day Week Global, to assess the effects of their trials on productivity and worker wellbeing. She says there’s still more research to be done on increasing productivity in fewer hours. But broadly, the indications are positive.
“Being able to disconnect from work and disengage from work and recharge is really beneficial not just for our wellbeing but also for productivity,” Giurge says. “We come back more engaged, we come back with more energy at work, and we’re less likely to make mistakes and we’re more motivated to put effort into the things that we care about.”
That’s all very well if you’re drafting wills, or staring at a computer screen all day, or, for that matter, a CEO speaking from one of your sunny vineyards on Waiheke. But what about nurses, cleaners, shopkeepers and waiters – those for whom it’s harder to imagine 100% of work being accomplished in 80% of the hours?
One of the criticisms of the four-day week is the extent to which the conversation has been dominated by the white collar sectors, the desk workers, those who tend to have existing layers of wealth and privilege. Barnes argues the potential for reduced hours is not restricted to white-collar workers – it just requires assessing different workplaces at systems level.
“In things like retail, hospitality, it’s the two dynamics you’re looking at: do you get better output? But also, does your cost base change as a consequence of not having turnover, sick days, somebody not showing up … You have to look at it in the macro,” he says. Businesses currently lose huge amounts of money to staff turnover and burnout, sick days, disengaged employees, errors, and duplicated work.
Studies have found, for example, that the full cost of replacing a nurse was between 30% and 130% of their salary. For other employees, Gallup puts the cost at between 20% and 200%.
With the pandemic knocking the traditional workplace off its axis, reduced hours feel increasingly like an idea whose time has come.
“Four Day Week has been given rocket fuel because of Covid,” Barnes says. There were two obvious effects: firstly, an enormous number of workers were sent to work from home – and time in the office was suddenly and forcibly disintegrated as a proxy for productivity. The second was that workers, freed from constant supervision, still seemed to do their work.
“[It addressed] two of the big issues we always faced,” says Barnes. “How do I measure output? And how do I trust my workforce? Well, you sort of had that answer.”
The third effect has been dubbed the great resignation: workers in the US left their jobs at historic rates toward the end of 2021, with a record 4.5 million quitting in November. In the UK, nearly 1.2m jobs were open, with many employers struggling for applicants. The reasons are complex, but the pandemic highlighted modern work’s unsustainable qualities – burnout, stagnating wages, lack of childcare, the need for work-life balance.
Some employees are now in a position of market power, and demanding better. But most of the sweeteners that businesses offer employees – gym memberships or foosball or training or free lunches – aren’t highly motivating, Barnes says, because what appeals to one worker leaves another cold. Time, on the other hand, he says is endlessly personal: a person can use it for family, for hobbies, for rest, for side-hustles, for education.
“When you give people back time, you individualise the incentive,” he says. “What I’m doing is I’m giving you the time, when you want it, so you can do the things that matter to you. And you can’t put a price on that.”
Increasingly, it is the value of these things that Barnes seems fascinated by. In his own life, he has reached what might be considered capitalism’s heights: multimillionaire, serial entrepreneur, owner and director of global companies. But over time, it seems he has become increasingly convinced that those ends might not really what most of us are seeking.
His own work, and success, he says, has come at a cost; two marriages, and children living on another continent. He launches into another string of rhetorical questions. “Is that good? Can I get that back? And why – because I decided that working was more important than absolutely everything else. Is it?” he asks.
He answers himself: “Not really.”
From amid the sunshine, the vines and luxury, he will keep working to extend to others the luxury he now particularly values – time.
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