Agency /Improving efficiencies: How Equality moved to a four day work week

Improving efficiencies: How Equality moved to a four day work week

The concept of a four day work week has been growing in popularity over the last few years, especially since Covid has led many people and businesses to reassess their priorities, processes and output. There are many stories and reports about large international companies making this change, however we don’t hear many stories about smaller businesses in Australia, and in the creative industry, who have implemented the four day work week to great success.

So we sat down to talk with an agency owner who did just that. Marilla Akkermans, Founder and Managing Director of Equality Media + Marketing, chatted with us about why she decided to make the change and how it happened, plus gave great advice for anyone looking to do the same thing in their workplace.


Marilla, tell us a little bit about yourself

I’m the founder and owner of Equality Media + Marketing. We’re a full service marketing and media agency in Richmond, VIC. I founded Equality in 2018 after coming back from maternity leave from my first child, Leo. I am also lucky enough to have a daughter, Jasmine, who was born in 2022.

I’ve worked in media since 2005 and over that time have worked in large agencies, small and mid sized independents as well as a few years client side. Having worked in businesses through growth phases I saw how brilliant culture could be when founders had time to invest in it, and I also saw what happens to culture when a business grows without consideration to how it grows, and how culture can be compromised when companies get bigger.

That thought was in the forefront of my mind when I founded Equality, which was essentially me creating a workplace that I wanted to come and work at and am so proud that I have a team of people who want to come to work every day at Equality with me.


What made you decide to change your business work week to four days?

Every year over the Christmas break, it’s always a bit of a time for me to recharge and reassess where my business is heading for the next year. And I always kind of come back refreshed from that time and thinking about something new that I want to implement in the business.

A couple of years ago, there was a lot of noise and research around a four day work week. The premise was that if you can try and work smarter, not harder, you can save efficiency time every day to try and get people to effectively work five days into four.

There’s been a lot of research around how much productivity you actually get out of a traditional employee, and it sits around four hours a day. Once I’d seen the data on how easy (in theory) you could implement a four-day week, I wanted to find out more. On average, you get around four hours of productivity out of an employee. If you can encourage and find efficiency in your week to be 60 minutes more productive each day you make up the fifth day, without working any extra hours. The main gist of the four-day week is that we spend a lot of time on admin and in meetings that we probably don’t need to have, so that was the first place we looked at.

I’m sure there’s businesses out there that would take that efficiency win and then expect somebody to keep working that fifth day. But the whole premise of the four day work week is, if I can pay you for an output rather than your time on a timesheet, I still get the same outcome as a business. And you get to have your time back that you’ve made in efficiencies, for life.

I also think that the 38 hour work week is a bit antiquated because it was created during the industrial era at a time where work was about making things and you had to clock in and out. However we’re in an era where it’s less about physical output and more about our knowledge and how much we can get out of a human being on any given day. And we’re not machines! We need time to rest and be creative and come up with ideas and live life to give our best at work. So the premise behind the four day work week is something that really aligns with me.


How did you prepare for this change?

We did more research to understand exactly what it meant by trying to find efficiencies – and a lot of the research said that it was about trying to find ways to work together more efficiently as a team, but also how we spent our time from an internal perspective.

So over a six month period we did a number of things. We took three months to do research on how we actually spent our time, we got an external efficiency consultant in to talk to us about how we could make a plan as a team collectively, and worked on key principals as a group that worked for us. Finally, we did a three month trial and didn’t tell any of our clients about it so we could actually see if it made an impact from an external communication perspective.

The good news was nobody noticed that we were doing it!


How does the four day week work at Equality?

There are a number of things that we do.

The first one is we have a buddy system. The day before you have your day off, you’ve got to hand your work over to somebody, to your buddy. The principle of the buddy system is to leave your workload as you would like to find it. So if you’ve got a long list of things for your buddy to do, then unfortunately you’re not really prepared enough to have your day off.

That’s the other part of this, the day off is not guaranteed, it’s a gift. We’re two adults agreeing to this situation – if your work gets done, then as your employer, I’ll give you this extra day.

The second thing is we try to work two days ahead. If we have leeway with the client to put deadlines in place, we try to add a buffer in. Of course, this doesn’t always work, and there’s things that come up that can’t be avoided. But if we can try and work ahead two days as much as possible, then even when we have that day off, we’re still a day ahead. It gives us room to breathe.

We also have a project management platform that we use and we leverage AI and technology to work a synchronously to improve time spent on projects.

The final thing is that half of our team are off on a Monday and half are off on a Friday, so we’re not closed on any particular day of the week. We also have some parents that prefer to take a little bit each day rather than a full day. Or our Finance Director doesn’t have a buddy as we don’t have a huge finance team, so she takes time during the week as she needs it, rather than taking a whole Monday or Friday off.

The whole premise is that the equality time – which is what we call our four day work week – is made and designed to suit the individual, as well as everyone making a commitment that the business needs to thrive at the same time.


A lot of businesses are concerned about productivity and output going from five days to four days. What outcomes and results did you see after going four days a week?

A lot of the results were around admin and internal meetings. When you’re looking at your time and saying this is really precious to me and to the organisation, if we were to find efficiencies, what could we do?

We cut out a lot of internal meetings which equated to a 70% reduction. There were so many unnecessary meetings, so we really looked at how we could use tech and AI to make ourselves as efficient as possible. When we do have internal meetings, we have to have an agenda, we have to follow up with meetings and if there’s pre-reading, you do it before the meeting.

We also use tech to work asynchronously as a team, so we don’t need to be in the one place to talk about how we’re going to put a deck or proposal – we can all work on it at our own pace.


Have you noticed any benefits for your staff with this change?

I haven’t made this change because I want recognition. I do it to try and make Equality a truly great place to work.

However, from an external recognition perspective, last year we won Australia’s Best Place to Work with AFR and Boss magazine and this year we came second. We also won the Most Flexible Workplace award this year at the same awards. We’ve also won wellbeing awards for our implementation of the four day workweek and what it means for our employees. These awards show us how we’re ranking against everybody else within our industry, but also how we’re going with other businesses that are a similar size.

Beyond that, we have a 90% staff satisfaction rate and a really high retention rate of around 95%, in an industry that sits at about 60% retention rate.

Even though we’re giving people less time to work, we’ve helped them be more efficient when it comes to their jobs, which means they’ve got more time for their actual lives too. There’s been a general improvement in wellbeing too, because no one is overworked and everyone has additional time to live their life, which is ultimately what we’re supposed to be working for.


Has there been a downside?

I would say that the majority of the outcomes have been positive. The main downside would be those times where we don’t have a 100% strike rate of everybody getting their equality time.

Equality time is not a given, you have to work towards having that time. As I mentioned earlier, if your work’s not up to date, then you’re not getting the time. But I have a bit of a catch cry that we’re all adults, so I treat everybody as such. If I keep my side of the commitment and make sure that nobody is overcommitted from a workload perspective and if you can keep your side of the commitment and make sure that you’re hitting your KPIs and your work output, then everybody gets that time off – which is about 40 days additional leave per year.


Agencies are notorious for long working hours. How have you gone about changing the mindset of clients and others in the industry to accept a four day week workplace?

I actually don’t think that it’s clients that are putting that prerequisite on agencies, I think it’s agency owners and agency leaders who over commit on their team’s behalf.

If you’re looking at your bottom line only to maximise profit, you’re never going to work a 38 hour week or have enough team members to do the job that you’re committing to your clients.

I actually think that it’s a fundamental shift that needs to happen from the bottom down in terms of expectations of how many hours that someone works within an agency. I also think that a shift is needed around this expectation that the longer that you’re sitting at the desk, the more work you’re actually getting done because it’s a fallacy.

If you look at the data – and I love the data – it doesn’t lie about the efficiencies that you can have, not only from a creative perspective, but the amount of work that you can actually output when you treat your people like people. Look at the output of your team, not the time that they’re sitting at their desk.


What advice would you give agencies or companies looking to make the same transition?

To really prepare, to look at your business and work out what are the things that you might not kind of see coming when trying to implement the four day work week.

Also look at how engaged your team are with you at the beginning. If you’re trying to throw a four day work week in as a Hail Mary to keep staff or if you have a high turnover, then the premise of it isn’t right or it isn’t there. It’s about being genuine and people know when something is delivered to them from a genuine perspective or not. You actually have to be really committed to understanding what it takes and willing to change the structure of your business to make sure that you are equipped to actually give your people a true four day work week.

It’s not a bed of roses, it takes a lot of work and from an ongoing perspective, you need to constantly look at how you use all of those efficiencies because it’s easy to get off track. But it’s 100% worth committing to. I wouldn’t go back.


Keen to chat with Marilla about the four day work week or what Equality is up to? Connect with her on LinkedIn!