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The case for the five-hour workday

Posted 2 years ago in Advisors by Erin Smith
Posted by Erin Smith

Jonathan Elliot is managing director and adviser at Collins SBA, a Hobart-based accounting and financial advisory firm with its sights set on national expansion in the near future.

Like most things in life, the catalyst for change came unexpectedly. Back in November 2015, I took on the managing director role at Collins SBA which meant a steep learning curve for me at the time.

Unexpected change and a new way of working

My wife and I had a five-month-old daughter, and it was then that my wife was diagnosed with a stage 3 cancer. In an instant, my priorities changed. I wanted to make sure I was being a husband and father first and second, and managing director of Collins SBA third.

A new way of working

I came back to work part-time when my wife’s chemotherapy was coming to an end, and my team was very supportive. But something had shifted for me. I didn’t want to come home at 6pm to my recovering wife and baby daughter. Time was a more precious commodity than ever before.

So I became very selective in how I used my work hours. That included one-hour meetings becoming 15-minute focused discussions with a clear agenda. The new efficiencies resulted in my working fewer hours, and getting more done for my clients. Throughout this entire process our operations manager, Claudia Parsons, had been assessing our employee attrition and retention. It was tough to find quality talent to hire. These two unrelated dynamics combined to present a single solution. I’d been reading studies about how five-hour workdays reaped positive change for many companies and when they failed.

The case for a five-hour workday

I began to float the idea of a five-hour workday internally, to find allies in my plan to present a business case to the board.

The stakes were high – the change could potentially blow up the business. And this high risk resulted in an initially slow uptake whenever I gently floated the idea to colleagues. The four executives who were first to buy into the concept were all initially skeptical. Yet after a short while, our CFO became one of our biggest advocates. His support meant we had solid validation for our arguments.

Here are the ten steps we took once I had gained enough momentum to run a trial.

1. Present it to the board

Once I had four of the executives on board, we hijacked a board meeting and outlined the pros and cons of the approach. We’d already written our own FAQs to address every conceivable scenario and contingency. This preparation gave us the confidence we needed to present the case to the board. And they were interested.

2. Set clear standards

Next, we set clear measures and limits agreed with the board. If we saw productivity decreasing, or if client services were being impacted negatively by the shorter workday, then we’d stop the trial immediately.

3. Plan the logistics

We needed to look closely at the logistics, such as staffing reception so that clients could contact our o ce throughout the standard 8-hour workday. We combined some existing administrative roles with reception duties, and covered reception in two overlapping five-hour shifts.

4. Make a call on remuneration and KPIs

We purposefully did not change anyone’s salaries or KPIs. We wanted our teams to be motivated by the prospect of a shorter working day and take responsibility for finding their own e ciencies while meeting the same high standards, especially client satisfaction.

5. Share the news with staff early on

Several months before we started the trial and right before the summer break, we hijacked our regular internal business update to all staff, giving staff time to process the news and come back with questions. Initially the silence around the table was deafening. It took a few months and some internal tweaks for everyone to really come on board and be in a positive headspace ready to start the trial.

6. Expect some resistance

Our teams quickly understood they had to own their role more than ever in order to maintain the same standards in a shorter space of time. This manifested in two different ways. Some people rose to the challenge and sought more efficient ways of working, while others didn’t like the idea and they left. It turns out that when you condense an eight-hour workday into five hours – and remove a lunch hour and other breaks to suit (which is legal!) – not everyone wants it.

7. Protect the client experience

When we started the initiative, we chose not to tell our clients, partly because we didn’t want them to think we’d had spare time on our hands – even though we used fixed-fee pricing so the billing didn’t change. We knew our clients needed to experience no disruption to the quality of their service, before we could bring them along with us. Sure enough, it worked. Once the trial was a proven success, we shared the news. Clients have been very supportive, with many wanting to do something similar in their own business. Although sometimes they need to talk to us outside of the five hours, it’s surprising how often they’re happy to wait a few hours or even to the following morning.

8. Be prepared for a massive cultural change

The biggest early change was in our culture. The idea of a productive workday was turned on its head. While there was a definite transition at first – where staff worked towards a five-hour workday – if someone was still at their desk at 5pm, it was no longer considered admirable.

9. Look at the stats early on

We constantly reviewed the success of the trial and after everyone settled into it, a pattern emerged. Realistically in any given workday, about one-third of staff were doing five hours, another third were doing six hours and the final third around seven hours or more. The stats were telling us it was an ongoing process and not an overnight shift. Recognising this, we made sure to communicate to staff that the shorter workday was something to strive for, not an absolute.

10. Invite in a new management approach

This cultural shift reinforced our bottom- up approach to management. It meant a culture of continuous improvement which has helped to boost overall engagement. This is probably one of the best outcomes of the five-hour day. As a result of the five-hour workday, our entire culture, productivity and approach to innovation has changed – to the benefit of our clients, which is always the first and foremost consideration. It’s been a positive game-changer for our business and for everyone involved.

Jonathan’s story is taken from the new issue of Partner Pages – a magazine of beautifully curated content, written by partners, for partners. Get your free copy at the Roadshow Australia 2018.


Debbie Mirisch
January 25, 2018 at 12.28 am

Jonathan I am sure you have no issue attracting and retaining great talent now. A 5 hour day for any parent is a wonderful opportunity. I know when my children were younger I would have jumped at it. Instead I found myself working long hours and missing out on those special moments we can never get back so I ended up leaving a role I loved to find a better fit that allowed me to be the Mum I wanted to be but also have a fulfilling career at the same time. Very progressive of your firm, let’s hope other firms and businesses consider the value in this. My team are largely working mums so flexible hours was always going to be on the table and if that means shorter working days so be it. So many talented people want to work and love their chosen career but also want a life outside of work. We need to remember we work to live not live to work. Loved your article.

Jonathan Elliot
February 6, 2018 at 11.33 am

Thanks for your positive feedback Debbie. I’ve found that parents in particular typically get the concept of a ‘compressed’ work day right away. Balancing the demands of being a parent with career, relationships, me-time (?!), is challenging and you can only feel on top of things if you’re organised and effective at the many things that need your attention. Thanks again and all the best to you and your team of largely working mums, who I’m sure are very effective! – Jono

Gunther Williams
May 23, 2018 at 4.48 am

This has worked great for our company Idaho Sewing for Sports, Inc. Sales are up, direct labor costs are down, profit is up. Mistakes are down, productivity is up, efficiency is a self-motivated thing now, employees are happier, healthier, and more engaged and motivated than ever.

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