A British company has shortened its working day from eight hours to six, inspired by a Scandinavian model aimed at boosting wellbeing and efficiency.
Workers at Liverpool-based Agent Marketing say they feel more "refreshed" and "energised" since the work day was reduced, though some admit it felt "strange" to start with.
The company is trialling having a shorter day in December and January, following a movement among companies in Sweden to reduce the working day to boost morale, health and work-life balance.
Its staff, who usually work from 8:30am until 5.30pm, have swapped this for 9am until 4pm day with a mandatory one-hour lunch break where they have to leave their desks.
Shortening their day by two hours was a weird experience to begin with, says Ben Spencer, the company's head of creative: "It was strange. It’s the middle of winter, so usually when we leave the office its already dark, but an early finish meant I was coming out of the office into daylight."
A little bit of extra time has meant the company's 14 staff can indulge in some hobbies. "I like to snowboard, so one day I finished early and went to an indoor ski slope in Manchester which meant I beat the evening rush," Spencer says.
"It was brilliant – I pretty much had the whole slope to myself. It’s also nice to be able to go home and spend a bit more time with my fiancée and daughter."
Spencer and his fiancée might even start learning an instrument, not something he would "ever consider doing" without the extra free time.
"It’s been nice to be around at home to help my kids with their homework more," says Rick Blundell, a senior web developer. "We’ve been together more as a family, which has really lifted the spirits of us all and given us an opportunity to grow closer."
His wife, a teaching assistant, has "certainly" enjoyed him doing more housework at home, he adds jokingly.
The company - which is already daily meditation sessions, weekly yoga classes and monthly massages - took up the trial after a challenge from BBC's The One Show, which has filmed the results and is scheduled to broadcast them tonight at 7pm.
"We skyped with one of the companies in Sweden that got the ball rolling for the six-hour day model," says Jacob Bolton, the company's PR executive.
But the trial scheme - which the team will assess after the two months is up - is not just about having more time for family and out-of-work activities. "It is about creating new ways of working that allow for a better work-life balance, greater focus, heightened creativity as well as an atmosphere and environment people genuinely want to work in," says managing director Paul Corcoran.
The atmosphere at work has changed, according to head of strategy and planning, Darren McLeod. "I have found that I am coming into work feeling much more refreshed. Everyone is very positive, working a six-hour day is really providing us with the opportunity to perfect our work life balance.
"I go rock-climbing at least once a week, so on the days that I finish early I beat the rush and can still be home before seven, which is great."
The one-hour lunch rule has proved particularly popular, he thinks. "It’s so easy to spend your lunch break working, but we have found that taking time away has really benefited us. I’ve found it has given me time to clear my head, gather my thoughts and go back to my desk feeling much more refreshed and energised."
"We’ve always been a lively office," Spencer admits, "but one thing I have noticed since the trial started is how much more energised and refreshed everyone is when they arrive at the office. Energy levels stay consistently high throughout the day, with everyone absolutely focused."
But doing only six hours of work a day can have drawbacks. Blundel, who works in web development, says: "Although it’s been good having extra quality time to spend with my wife and children, web development and coding is often a lengthy process and I sometimes find that the six-hour day can be constraining. Often eight hours isn’t enough to design and build the sites we create - six hours can make this often impossible."
"There were, of course, times where six hours just weren’t enough to get everything done," Spencer agrees, "so we’d work past the six-hour cut-off point, because at the end of the day the client always comes first.
"I think we can take the Scandinavian model and adapt it into something that’s flexible, something that leaves us with enough time to produce high quality work whilst staying refreshed with enough time for ourselves."
They've had to get better at streamlining work, and cutting out unnecessary processes.
It has forced them to question office habits like long meetings, says Jeanette Gill, head of communications. "Instead of lapsing into our usual one hour weekly team meeting, we decided to see what would happen if we cut it down. Everyone stayed sharp and in the end we covered everything we needed to in just eight minutes without missing the important content we needed to cover.”
For some people, the plan had to be changed to a shift pattern to make sure they were available to clients during normal working hours.
"We build close relationships with everyone we work with, so they trust us to do whatever it takes to get their work done," says Blundell, who says client satisfaction hasn't suffered.
He isn't sure that a strict 9am-4pm policy will work though: "I feel that such a rigid working model would be difficult to adopt. What I’d like to see is something more flexible that can adapt to both our needs and the needs of our clients. We’re going to sit down at the end of the trial and work out something that’s good for everybody."
Others like McLeod have managed to "maximise" their day. "I have found myself planning my day more than I would do on a normal working day. Through careful scheduling I am being more resourceful with my time, which in turn is allowing me to fit more in to my working day. I have also reviewed how I manage my team and the meetings that we hold - it’s all about making sure that we know what we want to achieve from every meeting and being much more resourceful with the time that we have."
The team has not yet decided if the shorter day will stay after the trial is finished, but most would like to adopt a model similar to the Swedish one, but with some flexibility.
The test has sparked conversations with family and friends, says Spencer, about if the standard eight-hour working day is right for every business.
"It seems that the 9-5 still prevails just out of some kind of cultural inertia, and I think it’s brilliant that people have started to question it and figure out ways of structuring their working time into something that’s more productive and healthy."
Blundell says that after a few weeks, even the sceptics have been won over. "People are surprised at first, and then a little doubtful. For a lot of people, more work in less time just doesn’t make sense.
"But then they begin to understand that this is more about how efficiently you work, not just how many hours you put in. Once they understand that they begin to realise that this is something that could perhaps really work."