- Collins SBA has achieved record output and revenue since reducing work hours.
- Rules were set and a three-month trial launched after two years of planning.
- Sick leave has fallen dramatically
By Tony Malkovic
Last November, the management team at the financial advisory firm Collins SBA announced what they thought was an offer too good to refuse – keeping staff on their normal salaries, but having them work a five-hour day. But to bemused staff, the offer seemed just too good to be true.
Their reaction wasn’t quite what was expected. “There was actually stunned silence,” says Claudia Parsons, the operations manager at Collins SBA. “Not a word was uttered.” She wondered if they actually heard what was said.
“Then they absorbed it and realised there really wasn’t a catch. We weren’t trying to trick them or reduce their pay or anything like that – that’s when people got excited.” So there wasn’t a catch, but there are expectations – and rules.
What Collins SBA seems to have done is find a do-it-yourself solution to the challenge all businesses now face: finding better ways of working in the 21st Century. It’s a topic that’s been in the spotlight for a long time.
France’s controversial 35-hour week was introduced 17 years ago and books such as Ricardo Semler’s The Seven-Day Weekend and Tim Ferris’s The 4-hour Workweek both explore alternatives to conventional work arrangements. Parsons and Jonathan Elliot, the managing director at Collins SBA, began their quest several years ago.
The idea was on Elliot’s radar after he read The Five Hour Workday by Stephan Aarstol, who cut work hours at his paddle board company. “Jonathan said: ‘I want you to read this book’,” recalls Parsons. “I already worked part-time and I said: ‘I don’t need to read it, I already do it’. His response was that he wanted her to read it, to see if it could roll it out to everyone.
The project took on added imperative after Elliot’s wife developed cancer and he reduced his hours to assist with her care and treatment. When you look at the raw figures, switching to a five-hour day seems fanciful, even impossible.
Dumb brave vs smart brave
According to OECD figures for 2016, Australians in full-time employment work an average 42 hours a week, with New Zealanders putting in 42.7 hours a week. Dropping to 25 hours a week represents a 40% reduction in working hours.
Parsons says naysayers labelled them ‘dumb brave’ and predicted the Collins SBA experiment would fail. But she and Elliot saw it as ‘smart brave’. It turns out they were right.
She’s adamant that the key to cutting hours is to maintain the same productivity. For her and Elliot, the solution involved careful research and preparation; good communication and management; harnessing technology; and coaching staff in new work methods to ensure productivity didn’t suffer.
The Hobart-based firm has about 30 staff and the switch to a five-hour working day was announced in November 2016. “Then we gave our team two months to get ready for it before we hit the ‘go’ button,” Parsons says. That dress rehearsal paid off.
“I think that was important because in some instances people have to undo years and years of work habits,” Parsons explains. “We needed to train people, and coach and mentor them and hold their hands as to how they could achieve it.
“I didn’t realise how important that was to helping ensure that it was a success.” Also important was utilising technology to work more efficiently, and the need for teamwork to achieve more.
So what’s been the impact on the business since the switch? Parsons says there were some truly delightful results and some not-so-good surprises. In other words: no pain, no gain. “Our team have achieved record output and revenue since the introduction of the five-hour day,” she says.
“People are more motivated than ever to hit and exceed their KPIs as no one wants to revert back to the old work hours. “Sick leave has also fallen significantly, to the point where it is extremely unusual for team members to take a sick day. They now have more time to relax and care for their health and wellbeing and we are seeing the results of this change in higher levels of attendance at work and increased productivity.”
It seems the notion of ‘more time’ was always going to be a winner. “As a firm, we already ticked the boxes about paying well, providing a nice working environment and lots of training opportunities,” she says.
“But time is what people want and they value that more than anything.”
So what’s been the effect on staff?
The change was accompanied by what Parsons calls a set of onerous rules for everyone to comply with and she says the level of management oversight needed to bed down the change was more than expected. The rules outlined the latest time you could start, the earliest time you could leave, and no breaks in certain periods.
And the rules applied to everyone, even the most senor personnel, with no exceptions. “I’ll be honest, there were some difficult conversations as people struggled to adjust to that,” she says. “But we haven’t had to enforce those rules for months now. People get it,” she says.
Not only rules were introduced, but all team members moved to operating under KPIs that could be measured. “With a five-hour day comes a lot of accountability. You couldn’t possibly roll out a five-hour day without having KPIs for everybody and everybody having a crystal clear understanding of exactly what was required of them,” says Parsons.
“This was a shift for some people as previously only our senior team members performed within KPIs. “I think people probably liked understanding what their parameters were, and they got this great sense of achievement from hitting their budgets and they knew they were going to be beneficiaries of it because we would maintain the five-hour day if they hit their budgets and KPIs.”
It’s a massive incentive, but staff were aware from the start that the experiment could be called off. “The thing we needed to be clear about is the five-hour day is a reward, not a right.”
We worked incredibly hard on building a culture of change, a culture of being open-minded with work habits
At first, they didn’t publicise it to clients because it started as a three-month trial and they honestly didn’t know if it was going to work. “We were prepared at any point in the three-month trial that if at any time it looked like productivity was dropping – or it looked like we were going to blow the business up – we would pull the pin on the five-hour day immediately.
“There’d be no notice given, it would be immediately back to normal working conditions.” But concerns that clients might be fazed by the shorter working hours were unfounded. “Very little of what we do for our clients has to be done urgently,” Parsons says. “People are open-minded enough to not care when or how things get done, as long as it gets done and we’re meeting their expectations.”
There’s been another pleasant surprise. When word did get out, there was a rush of people trying to get in the door. “The calibre of people applying for roles (with the firm) has lifted exponentially which has had a flow-on effect to our existing team members. The bar has been lifted,” says Parsons.
To be accurate, not everyone works five hours a day every day. If a client needs assistance, or there’s a legislative deadline to meet, the work will get done. “I don’t want to mislead people and pretend that every single person does a five-hour day every single day, because that’s not always the case,” Parsons says.
Her advice to other companies thinking about switching to a five-hour day is two-fold: do your homework, really do your homework; and don’t rush into it. “We didn’t just flick the switch and turn on a five-hour day, it was probably a good couple of years in the making,” Parsons explains.
“We worked incredibly hard on building a culture of change, a culture of being open-minded with work habits. More importantly, I think we put so much effort into the white paper that we had presented to our shareholders.
“I think we nailed it in terms of all the things that could go right and wrong, we put so much thought and effort into it.”
Parsons says the good news is that, for Collins SBA, the “not-so-good surprises” that accompanied the change have all been ironed out.
“Our team are more motivated than ever to hit and exceed their KPIs as no one wants to revert back to old work hours,” she says. Which means that “smart brave” has well and truly won the day.
The Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance and mental health advisory service beyondblue have launched a new suite of resources for SMEs and healthy workplaces at headsup.org.au.
Read about how to cut your working hours - E-Book available at CA ANZ Library
The 4-hour workweek : escape the 9-5, live anywhere and join the new rich / by Timothy Ferriss.
Tony Malkovic is an award-winning journalist.