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Great ideas need strong foundations

This company introduced 5-hour working days and magical things happened

Who here wants to be home by 2 PM?

hero image_collinssba

For our ongoing series Fundamentals, we’re looking at different companies worldwide and the basic principles they were built on. This time: financial solutions company Collins SBA.

At first glance, Collins SBA appears to be some sort of travel agency. Their well-designed homepage shows panoramic pictures of people hiking through deserts, snorkeling bays, and drinking wine on sunny balconies.

In reality, Collins SBA is a financial consulting company employing about 35 people. Every single one of them gets to enjoy these marvelous outdoor activities because the firm offers five-hour working days.

Jonathan Elliot, managing director at Collins SBA, successfully proposed the idea in 2015. I interviewed him via video chat because he’s in Hobart, Tasmania – 17,000 km away and 10 hours ahead. He’s taking the call in his living room, while his toddler is playing in the background. It’s 6 PM where he is, and he’s been home for three hours already.

Switching to 5-hour working days

To start at the beginning: There were two completely different reasons Elliot initiated five-hour working days. The first was strictly business: The labor market tightened around 2015, making it harder to attract new talent. Collins SBA was already paying competitive salaries, so Elliot needed something new to differentiate his company from competitors.

The other reason is deeply personal. Around that same time, Elliot’s wife was diagnosed with cancer. “We went through the whole process – surgery, chemotherapy, recovery. My daughter was only six months old at the time. So naturally, I had to become a husband and father first, and a managing director second.”

Unable to pass his workload onto colleagues at the firm, Elliot tried to get as much done as possible in half working days. “No unnecessary meetings, no chit chat, I just focused on work and got home in time to look after my family,” he says.

When things got better at home Elliot could go back to normal working hours, but it was then when he first realized longer working hours didn’t result in more output. Inspired by other organizations such as Californian company Tower Paddle Boards, which also offers five-hour work days, and Swedish nursing homes testing six-hour working days, he decided to pitch the idea to colleagues and shareholders who agreed to give it a try.

Setting some ground rules

One of the main concerns, understandably, was whether the firm would be as productive working five-hour days as it had been for eight-hour days. So Elliot set some ground rules. “People had to come in between 8 and 9 AM in order to leave between 1 and 2 PM. No personal appointments during those hours, unless they’d been officially approved. And no going out for coffee or lunch – we provided coffee and healthy snacks at the office.”

Fewer emails, shorter meetings

It’s been two years since Collins SBA started the pilot. One of its main findings was that five-hour workings days are pretty damn short. “People do enjoy occasional five-hour days, but rarely work 25-hour weeks,” Elliot says. “Some days they’ll need six hours, other days it’s seven. But they never work 38 hour-weeks, the number mentioned on their contract.”

Having said that, moving to five-hour days was a big success. Business benchmarks could be set higher. Sick leave went down by 12 percent. But even more important was how it spurred a change in mindset, Elliot says. “It motivated people to rethink their work process; what they could do differently to be more efficient.” The firm also offered some tools here. One-hour meetings were abolished unless absolutely necessary, while all employees received training to manage their email overload.

“Nowadays, I doubt you’d find anyone at my company with more than 20 emails waiting,” Elliot says rather proudly. “And we check this on a weekly basis. Employees who keep hitting huge numbers – 50 emails or more – need to redo the training.”

Enforced productivity

This kind of ‘enforced productivity’ isn’t for everyone, it turned out. Five employees left since the firm moved to 5-hour days, most of them on their own account. “Some people just don’t like change,” Elliot says. “One former employee didn’t want to adopt new software we provided, which meant her working process became different – and less efficient – than her team’s. She decided to leave and we assisted her in finding a new job.”

While a few employees decided to leave, the five-hour working day policy did prove a smart recruitment strategy. “Our pool of candidates is now bigger than before,” says Elliot. “And we see a higher number of people reaching out to us proactively.” The many press stories about Collins SBA have definitely helped here, he adds. “But if a job candidate brings up our five-hour workday very early on, that’s a red flag. It’s a great benefit, obviously, but it shouldn’t be the main reason why people want to work for us.”

Having said that, the content and design of Collins SBA’s website do echo the feeling of freedom –  which is unusual for a finance company. “Our team is made up of regular people who do remarkable things. Pilots, runners, riders and divers. Golfers and gardeners; cooks and coaches. Accountants and advisors too, of course!” the copy reads. Like their actual jobs are more of a side-hustle to their adventurous lifestyles.

Easy target

How do clients feel about the change? “They didn’t even notice at first,” says Elliot. “Which was actually one of our early metrics for success: if we can implement this covertly, we are doing it right.”

Eventually, word got out and clients were informed. Overall, they’ve been supportive and have no problem adapting to the schedule, says Elliot. The only drawback is that it provides an easy target for the few clients who are less satisfied and try to blame it on their ‘laziness’ and shorter work days. “Looking at the feedback in those rare cases, typically other issues were at play – such as processes needing improvement or miscommunication  – and then a short work day is an easy thing to blame,” he says. “But our client service standards and output targets haven’t changed so clients should not be at all impacted with how we’ve reorganized our work day”.

Polarizing concept

Collins SBA’s five-hour working day has been widely covered in the media. While it definitely sparked conversation, very few companies have followed in its footsteps. A handful of companies are experimenting with four-day working weeks, but that’s about it. “Some people can get very defensive whenever I talk to them about this,” Elliot says. “The concept is way more polarizing then I expected.”

The biggest resistance comes from other CEOs and business owners, particularly those running companies providing professional services. “If you charge clients by the hour, this will blow up your business. Elliot is a firm opponent of this billing method – he holding out long hours as a measure of good behavior demoralizes highly productive people.

At the same time, it makes people who are less effective look better than they probably are.“In many financial companies, people work 50 to 60 hours per week. That’s just ridiculous to me. Nobody is productive for 10 hours straight.”

Flexible hours instead of 5-hour days

Still, getting an outsider perspective every now and then does remind his team of their unique situation. “We’ve been doing this for two years now, so it has become the new norm,” Elliot says. “People expect to get a five-hour working day and can get frustrated when they have to put in more hours. Working till 5 PM feels like putting in overtime.”

In hindsight, he shouldn’t have called it the “five-hour working day,” he concludes. “I would have gone with “flexible working hours” instead. It’s less catchy and newsworthy, but it does paint a more realistic picture of what’s it’s like to work at our firm. Working five-hour days is still a reward, not a right.”

 

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Published February 4, 2019 — 13:02 UTC