PwC’s Return Policy for New Parents Is a Natural Experiment in Shorter Workdays

PwC’s Return Policy for New Parents Is a Natural Experiment in Shorter Workdays

Last month, PwC rolled out a $45 million investment in its employee wellness program, including a suite of new benefits for working parents, Glassdoor’s Amy Elisa Jackson reported at the time:

  • $1000 bonus to all staff to spend on wellness-related activities;
  • Four weeks of “Paid Family Care Leave” for all partners and staff to care for certain family member with serious health conditions;
  • Eight weeks of paid parental leave for staff of any gender with a new child (currently six);
  • New “Phased Return to Work” transition, with the option of new parents working 60% of hours, at full-time pay, for an additional four weeks following a block of paid parental leave;
  • $25K reimbursement, per child, for adoption (currently $5K);
  • $25K reimbursement, per child, for surrogacy (traditional and gestational) expenses;
  • Pro bono membership to sittercity.com (childcare, housekeeping, pet care services);
  • Six hours of free Eldercare consultation (home assessments, implementation of care, etc.)

These expanded benefits, which according to Amanda Eisenberg at Employee Benefit News will go into effect on July 1, mirror what many other large US employers are doing to make their family benefits more generous and more inclusive. The point of interest here is PwC’s Phased Return to Work program, which the professional services firm says is the first of its kind. Offering this benefit up-front and actively marketing it to employees avoids the trap wherein new parents are afraid to ask for the flexibility they need out of fear of being seen as uncommitted. Closing that loophole was the motivation for Adobe’s returning employee flexibility program, which allows employees returning from at least three months of leave to work a non-traditional schedule for at least four months and requires all returnees to meet with their manager and HR to discuss this option.

Paying employees a full-time salary to work only part-time may sound absurd on its face, but we’ve seen a few other organizations experiment with shorter workdays in recent years. PwC’s policy will be worth watching, as it will provide another data point in how a limited workweek affects employee productivity, particularly among the highly stressed cohort of new parents.

A new parent working full-time at PwC who takes advantage of the Phased Return to Work program will, in theory, be expected to work 24 hours a week: roughly five hours a day, five days a week, or perhaps six hours a day, four days a week. Putting employees on this kind of schedule has been tried in a few places, with mixed results. An experiment in six-hour workdays at a nursing home in Sweden was cut short at the end of 2016 when the organization found the program too costly to sustain. Shorter workdays made the nurses feel happier and healthier, reduced their use of sick leave, and improved the quality of the care they gave, however, and while the home could not afford to keep it going, the cost came in at only half of what they had expected.

Tower Paddle Boards, a small California company, began operating on five-hour workdays, for which its CEO Stephen Aarstol is a big evangelist, in 2015. Tower’s policy began as a seasonal experiment in “summer hours,” but Aarstol found that his employees could be just as productive on five hours as they had been on eight (those who couldn’t, however, ended up leaving the company). Tower has since returned to having five-hour days only in the summer, the Financial Times’ Pilita Clark reported last weekend, but Aarstol says the experiment is still ongoing. In the meantime, other organizations have started experiments of their own: Clark profiles a small Australian financial advisory firm that started a five-hour day policy last year, which “has worked so well to date that there are no plans to end it.”

To sustain the shorter workday, Tower rewards employees based on their productivity, uses technology to improve efficiency, and gives high performers the flexibility to put in longer crunch days on occasion without creating an expectation for them to actually be at the office 10 or 12 hours a day—which can become an unwritten rule at some workplaces. the Financial Times’ Clark profiled a small financial advisory firm in Australia that has also adopted five-hour days and says they are having a positive impact.

From a best-practices perspective, it will be fascinating to see how PwC’s Phased Return to Work plan turns out. In particular, we will be interested to see whether returnees who take advantage of this option are less or more productive than those who do not, and how their productivity compares to that of full-time employees in general. Provided that PwC puts the right kind of support behind this policy (i.e., making sure employees feel comfortable using it and that their managers respect their reduced schedules), the company might learn something surprising about how its employees work.