The 5 hour work day – a success story for one Managing Director and his family

Jonathan Elliot

For the average employee, an eight-hour day is the norm. Indeed, it may be nothing more than the minimum, with an expectation that more hours at work means demonstrating dedication to one’s role and company. It’s no different for Jonathan Elliot, Managing Director at Collins SBA. At least, it wasn’t.

“The standard eight-hour day is an arbitrary template and doesn’t make sense in a lot of areas, particularly when it comes to work-life balance.” Yet how effective are any of us when we turn up and spend eight hours in a chair? As Jonathan explains, “we don’t pay you to attend, we pay you to produce.”

It was the cancer diagnosis that his wife received when their daughter was five months old that prompted Jonathan to make some changes. Having only been in the MD role for six months meant Jonathan was on a steep learning curve, yet his wife’s treatment and the care of their daughter became a priority, requiring reduced working hours. “It made me become more effective. I couldn’t reduce to part time completely, so it really forced me to assess how I was doing things.

“When I got home at 2pm, I was able to take over the care of Esther and give Lou a break. Having a few extra hours each day meant I got quality time every day rather than just the weekend.”

When Louise got through her treatment and Jonathan was able to return back to work full time, he quickly realised his workload really had not changed, where he was doing just as much as he’d previously done with reduced hours. Old habits, whether it be a lunch break or a casual conversation crept in. “All that frustrated me, particularly when I could see I was getting back home half an hour before my daughter got to bed.

“When Lou came through chemo she was very weak for months afterwards. A full day of caring for her was too much. If I got home late at 6pm I’d have a cranky wife, cranky daughter, dinner, bed and do it again the next day.”

“I thought, hang on, I could already prove to myself I could be effective with less hours. That was my motivation but I really didn’t know what to do with it. I was still stuck in the eight-hour template.” 

Not so much an epiphany, but two things cemented the idea that circumstances could be better: one was reading about trials for shorter work hours in Sweden, to mixed success. The other was a book written by Stephan Aarstol on the five-hour day. “It just resonated with me. This is something we could do for the whole business, not only to create a better work-life balance for myself, but for my whole team. We could potentially make our business better as well. It was really exciting.

We all abide by certain assumptions every day. When we sit back and look at our life, questioning why we do things…it only takes someone to stop and ask the question ‘why’ to get ideas flowing.”

One thing to clarify, particularly with those whom Jonathan required buy-in from, was “you’re looking to do eight hours of work in five hours. You’re not working a five hour day. Everyone’s remuneration and KPIs remain unchanged. That was really important to communicate to my colleagues.”

First he needed to get the executive team on board. “Our CFO Sean Devenish was a bit cynical to start with that this was a pretty radical move.” That process of the executive landing on the same page, literally by writing a white paper detailing how it would work and the pros and cons, took 4-5 weeks.

They then had to sell the concept to their shareholders. “By this stage Sean was probably advocating the five-hour day trial more than any of us!” The idea was to emphasise that such a move put their people first (stated as one of Collins SBA’s core values), with the belief that happy, healthy productive people had to be good for business.

“Money alone is no longer a recruiting and retention tool, it’s just a factor. Time is a precious commodity and is too often overlooked. We were looking to differentiate ourselves. We saw this as a means to motivate and retain our existing great people and attract others.”

The idea was then taken to the whole team and presented in a monthly business update in late December 2016. “We thought we’d have a clapping of hands but in reality we got total silence.” Employees fell into different camps: the first saw this as an exciting opportunity to enhance their lifestyle. They could keep doing their work, getting rid of the frustrations and excess meetings, and be out there, living a life. Others thought it couldn’t work; that they couldn’t do the same work in a shorter time frame.

A trial began in February to give individuals a prior chance to think about what it would mean for them and their families. “Our administration team took the challenge on and found that if they cut out unnecessary things, they could prove to themselves they could do it. There’ve been bumps but nothing we haven’t been able to overcome and it’s largely worked out the way we hoped it would.”

Jonathan puts that down to the work they did before the trial, thinking through all the consequences, positive and negative. “We were really critical about everything. It really had the potential to blow up the business if it wasn’t implemented right.”

The first six weeks were a bit touch and go, at which point the experiment was rated a 6 out of 10. Yet everyone was expected to abide by the rules, where the five hours was a minimum. “I think people realised they owned their job and how they do things. If they didn’t change, they’d always be doing eight hours. If they changed their way, there was a big pay off at the end of it.

“It really has empowered people to take responsibly for how they do things.”

Jonathan gives the example of email, surely a bane for any professional. Adviser and Executive Andrew Pearce came across Email Ninja and rolled it out to everyone. Two team members, Georgie Jackson and George Duckett, implemented Last Pass, to overcome the frustration of remembering multiple passwords for the 100-odd websites the team had to access as part of their role.

“On their own, none of that’s particularly groundbreaking but I attribute the five-hour day for bringing a lot of that forward and the ideas come from everyone, not just management and executives. It’s become the new normal to ask why and find a better way.”

The five-hour day doesn’t happen for everyone, every day. Some people benefit more than others at times. It’s rare that everyone is always doing a five hour day.

“One of our advisers said that the fact that he can get home by 2-3pm means a better relationship with his wife and young family that wasn’t possible before. A consistent five-hour day for everyone is still something we’re striving for and there’s always going to be times, because of peak workloads and client servicing demands, where it won’t happen. But now if I get home by 4pm, it feels really late. Before this, ‘pm’ was the norm.

“I’ve been an equal parent with Lou. I think it’s important not just for Lou, but I get to spend time with Esther. If you don’t spend that time with your young child you’d just miss so much.

“Esther has a great bond with both of us. Both Lou and I get to focus ourselves in the professional space, we both get to participate in Esther’s development and she sees us both as role models, instead of mostly mum. It’s the accumulated benefit over time, that’s quite significant.”

Yet Jonathan is quite firm about the advice he gives to other dads. “The opportunity won’t fall into your lap. You’ve got to create the opportunity if it’s important to you, more so if you’ve got a young family.”

For him, it was a perfect storm: a critically ill wife, a five month old child and a leadership role in the business at the same time. While Jonathan loved what he did, his family came first.

“I’d say to anyone to look at how you run your everyday. I’m sure there’s plenty of pad in your day that you can cut out. And every time you do you can give that time to something that matters more like family.”

He understands that going full time to part time can be a financial issue for some. “Shorter hours isn’t about less hours for less pay. It’s about less time which forces an increase in productivity, for the same pay. This sort of opportunity won’t just fall into your lap,” he says, adding that plenty of good advice on approaching one’s employer to make this work could be found in Tim Ferriss’ book ‘The Four Hour Work Week.’

He continues that it’s got to be a win for yourself, the business and your employer. “Write your ideas down on paper, share the ideas, have friends, family, colleagues, critique them…pull it apart before you go to decision makers.”

He adds that a trial is a good idea, where it affords time to prove the idea with little risk to the business or employer.

“The worst thing you can do is nothing and you miss out on the really important things. Being loved and respected as Dad and Husband are my strongest drivers.

You can’t just keep putting things off.

You’ve got to do it now.”