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A four-day workweek, or a compressed work schedule, is an arrangement where a workplace has its employees work four days per week instead of five. This may seem like a major shift in how we think about and approach work but there is good evidence to support it.
Overworked employees tend to become less efficient: due to stress, fatigue, and other factors, their output during a given day is lower than what it would have been if they had worked a shorter week.
By emphasizing results instead of hours logged, businesses can achieve the same in fewer hours while giving employees more time to pursue other interests, spend time with loved ones, and manage their work-life balance.
A number of companies are already working a four-day workweek and the Japanese government has recommended it as national policy. Part of this has been driven by the COVID pandemic which has caused a broad reevaluation of work, including more acceptance of hybrid or remote work. While similar, hybrid and remote-first have real differences.
In short, making the four-day workweek, or ideally, a 32-hour workweek the norm leads to improved well-being for workers without a loss in productivity. Companies benefit from better employee engagement, decreased worker burnout, and lower turnover.
The origins of the four-day workweek
The idea of working reduced hours and getting more work done is not new. During the industrial revolution, most people worked between 12 and 16 hours per day, six days a week, without any paid holidays or vacation. Safety hazards were everywhere and children as young as five worked.
Robert Owen, a Welsh textile mill owner, social reformist, and labor activist advocated for a shorter workday in 1817 but his campaign failed at the time.
It wasn't until when Henry Ford popularized the 40-hour workweek that people began to work our current five-day week instead of a six-day week. The five-day workweek began as an experiment in some plants in July 1926 and became company policy by September that same year. Ford had been contemplating the idea of a five-day workweek since at least 1916.
Edsel Ford, Henry's son, and the company's president explained to the New York Times:
Every man needs more than one day a week for rest and recreation….The Ford Company always has sought to promote [an] ideal home life for its employees. We believe that in order to live properly every man should have more time to spend with his family.
Despite reducing hours, Ford did not reduce pay for Ford Motor Company employees.
By 1938, a U.S. federal law, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), had been passed mandating a minimum wage of 25 cents per hour, a 44-hour workweek, and overtime pay of 1.5 times a worker's regular pay. The act was amended for a 42-hour workweek in 1939 and a 40-hour workweek in 1940.
In a similar vein, companies began experimenting with a four-day, 40-hour workweek in the United States in the early 1990s. Another early experiment was conducted in Spanish Fork, Utah in 2004 when the government implemented a schedule of four, 10-hour days for city employees. The Utah state government experimented with the 4/10 schedule from 2008 through 2011.
Iceland conducted several large-scale trials of a four-day workweek between 2015 and 2019 and found it was an "overwhelming success." The trials' key findings showed that a shorter week translated to increased well-being of employees among a range of indicators: from stress and burnout to health and work-life balance.
Most of these earlier experiments did not have reduced hours, instead opting for a shorter workweek with a longer weekend. Today, most companies approach the four-day workweek as a 32-hour week with workers working four 8-hour workdays with a three-day weekend.
Spain has followed suit and launched a pilot in September 2021 which will last three years and use 50 million euros in European Union funding to compensate an estimated 200 companies for reducing their employees' workweek to 32-hours without cutting pay. As has Scotland, which plans to launch a trial four-day 32-hour workweek where workers will have their working hours reduced by 20% but won't suffer any loss in compensation.
What are the advantages of the four-day workweek?
The four-day workweek offers a number of benefits to employees and employers.
While it's counterintuitive, working less has been proven to lead to greater productivity. Employers often bog staff down with unnecessary emails and meetings that keep them from working on important tasks.
Recent data shows that most workers only accomplish around three hours or less of genuinely focused work per day, yet longer hours are too often the go-to response when companies seek greater productivity or output.
A study conducted by Stanford University revealed that overworked employees are less productive than employees who work a normal working week. In fact, they found that overwork leads to decreased total output, so much so that productivity during 60 hour weeks was less than two-thirds that of what it was when 40 hours was worked.
This dramatic reduction in productivity can be explained in two ways:
- Employees become less efficient: Due to stress, fatigue, and other factors, maximum efficiency during any given work day may become substantially less than what it was during normal working hours. This leads to overworked employees being substantially less productive at all hours of the work day, so much so that their average productivity decreases to the extent that the additional hours provide no benefit and are in fact, detrimental.
- Productivity may drop after working too many hours in a row: Overworked employees may be as productive in the first few hours of work and then productivity drops significantly after say, 8 hours of work. Productivity may drop so much that working more becomes a negative due to mistakes. This phenomena has been long-recognized in industrial labor.
As a more concrete example, Microsoft Japan tested out a four-day workweek in its Japan offices in 2019 and found that employees were significantly more productive. The shortened weeks led to more efficient meetings, happier workers and boosted productivity by a staggering 40%.
Happier and healthier employees
Reducing workers' hours directly translates to happier and healthier employees, with 70% of employers saying their employees feel less stressed and 78% say their people are happier as a result of the four-day workweek.
These findings are backed up by a report from the CIPD that found the majority of people think flexible working is positive for their quality of life, and 30% found it positively affected their mental health.
Fewer sick days
According to mental health charity Mind, one in six people report experiencing a common mental health problem in any given week in England, and one in five agreed that they have called in sick to avoid work.
A four-day workweek leaves employees with more time to focus on personal development, spend time with friends and family, and work on their mental health. This not only increases employees' happiness, but it can contribute to fewer sick days for companies. A recent study found that a four-day workweek decreased absenteeism by 62%.
More job applicants
The COVID pandemic has caused workers to demand more flexibility in their day-to-day schedule. By providing employees with a four-day workweek, companies can attract 15% more applications to their job postings than jobs with five-day workweeks.
This is backed up by research from the University of Reading that found 63% of employers in the United Kingdom said the four-day workweek helped them attract and retain talent. If you're looking to attract more applicants, consider also supporting remote work and read our guides on attracting and hiring remote talent.
Improved employee retention
New Zealand-based company, Perpetual Guardian founded by Andrew Barnes, conducted a two-month trial of the four-day workweek and found that employees maintained the same productivity level despite shorter hours, and also showed improvements in job satisfaction, teamwork, work-life balance, and company loyalty.
This benefit is compounded further when paired with a flexible schedule and remote work.
Reducing the amount of hours worked forces companies to focus on their most important tasks, cut out distractions, and use technology to automate routines. When Tower Paddle Boards announced that they were moving to a five-hour workday, they broke their previous daily sales record and booked $50,000 in sales for the first time. By the end of the month, they had sold $1.4m worth of paddle boards, breaking their previous monthly sales record by $600,000.
Blue Street Capital found it had a similar impact when it cut hours worked by three-eighths. After three years, revenues had gone up every year – 30% the first year, 30% the second – and the company has grown from nine to 17 employees.
Less hours can translate to increased sales.
Lower environmental footprint
The shorter workweek is also good for the environment as it can minimize CO2 emissions by reducing commuting and traffic congestion. According to a 2012 analysis from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst: “Countries with shorter work hours tend to have lower ecological footprints, carbon footprints and carbon dioxide emissions.”
This stemmed from less commuting and a lower need for energy consumption. They estimate that cutting the workweek by one day could reduce a carbon footprint by more than 30%!
The Microsoft Japan trial had similar findings with their offices' electricity use declining by 23% and paper printing decreasing by 59%.
The energy savings were notable, too. The Microsoft trial in Japan found that by working one day less a week, the office’s electricity use declined by 23% and paper printing decreased by 59%.
Lower costs for facilities, in-office perks, and office rent
Shifting to a four-day week eliminates 20% of variable overhead expenses like electricity and energy consumption. In addition, four-day employees use fewer office supplies, and equipment like printers and copiers depreciate slower. Fewer days in the office also translates to less frequent janitorial services.
Savings can also add up if you offer daily perks to employees like commuter benefits or free food. Finally, if you spread out the days that people aren't working, you can lease a smaller office to reduce real estate expenses.
Improved gender equality
Flexible working patterns like the four-day workweek ensure a more accessible labor market for women at all stages of their careers. Research on the Gender Pay Gap from the Government Equalities Office in Britain found that roughly two million people were not currently employed due to childcare responsibilities and 89% of those people were women.
What are the disadvantages of the four-day workweek?
While there are many benefits to the four-day workweek, there are also disadvantages.
Not all industries can adopt it
Unfortunately, the four-day working week model isn't suited for every sector. Some businesses or professions need to be available 24/7 and there aren't enough people to cover the hours needed which can make a shortened workweek unpractical. We wouldn't want our hospitals or emergency services to be offline for three days, however, it's possible to give the individual workers four-day weeks in some situations.
Doesn't always lead to increased productivity
It's not always possible to increase productivity enough in service, logistics, or manual labor jobs to achieve the same results in fewer hours. There's a physical limit to how productive people can be.
Not everyone wants to work four days
Some employees will prefer the structure of a five-day working week or prefer to work more hours than a four-day working week can offer. Likewise, some professions have tasks which take more time than others, which can force them to work overtime while other staff enjoy their time off.
Others enjoy the social aspects of their jobs and find their work engaging and don't want to do less of it.
Can reduce customer satisfaction
The state of Utah stopped working the four-day workweek despite fantastic results for employees and employers because it lead to poor customer satisfaction, residents complained they were unable to access government services on Fridays.
Compressed hours can lead to burnout
Some companies try to keep employees working the full 40 hours in a compressed window of four days, but this can lead to decreased levels of productivity and impact employee engagement, work-life balance, and overall happiness. The best results come from companies who adopt a 32-hour workweek.
Can reduce pay
A four-day workweek doesn't always mean that employees maintain their pay and benefits. Some organizations, including the Los Angeles Times used a four-day workweek as a cost-saving measure and cut employees' salaries by 20%.
If working five days a week continues to be the norm, there will always be some level of cultural stigma around working for four-days. This will likely be overcome as more companies shift to the four-day workweek though.
It doesn't always work
Treehouse, an online coding school, implemented a four-day workweek from its inception in 2013. Ryan Carson, the company's CEO, used the strategy from 2006 at his previous company. However in 2016, he reinstated a 40-hour week and said that the 32-hour week created a lack of work ethic in himself that was detrimental to the business and mission and he reported in 2018 that he was working 65 hours per week.
How to implement the four-day workweek
Implementing a four-day workweek decreases employee stress and improves well-being without impacting productivity – but only when implemented effectively. The ideal implementation of a four-day workweek is a 32-hour workweek with no loss in productivity, pay, or benefits. Depending on the company and industry, everyone might work Monday through Thursday and have Fridays off. Other companies may allow each employee to choose their extra day off or have a company-wide policy of a different third day off, such as Mondays or Wednesdays.
There are pros and cons to each choice. Everyone working on the same schedule increases opportunities for real-time communication and collaboration, but leaves the company unstaffed on days when everyone is off. We recommend allowing people to choose when to work then relying on asynchronous communication.
Here is a six-step guide you can follow to plan and roll out a four-day workweek.
Step 1: Value impact over hours
Society tends to focus on objective and easily quantifiable metrics such as hours worked over things that actual impact the bottom line. As a result, many companies use responsiveness and time in the office as proxies for productivity, even when those measures don't correlate to output.
For a four-day workweek to be successful, managers and employers need to shift their mindset and value output over long hours. Leaders also need to model the shift themselves and start to emphasize a healthier work-life balance. It's easier for everyone if the shift to the four-day workweek is an official policy rather than an informal or optional experiment.
In addition, embrace the uncertainty that comes with experimentation. You won't be able to anticipate every problem and its solution ahead of time. Planning is important but don't fall into analysis paralysis, many problems can only be solved through trial and error.
Step 2: Define success
Once you've decided that you want to adopt the four-day workweek, it's critical that you take the time to define what success looks like. You need to understand what outcomes you want to measure the success of the program against. This could be employee happiness, increased productivity, or revenue growth.
Just as important is to think through what you don't want to impact when implementing the change. For example, you probably don't want to negatively impact customer satisfaction, response times, or profitability.
Finally, we recommend involving managers and individual contributors in key decisions like:
- Should we work four eight-hour days or four ten-hour days? (We recommend four eight-hour days)
- Which day should we take off?
- Should everyone take the same day off?
- How can we ensure that we don't negatively impact our customers' experience?
- How will we measure productivity?
- What steps can we take to increase productivity? (We recommend deep work and asynchronous communication)
- How will we share our ideas for improvements going forward?
- What support do we need to be successful?
- How long will we trial a four-day workweek?
- Is there anything we are missing?
Use the answers to these questions to develop a plan.
Step 3: Communicate your intentions
Once you've defined success and developed a plan, it's time to communicate your intentions to internal and external stakeholders.
Internally, the biggest questions will probably be related to how the change will impact people's responsibilities and compensation. Be clear about why you're trying out a four-day workweek (use the benefits in this article!), and assure everyone that they will not be laid off, experience a pay cut, or lose benefits.
The reduced work hours will require changes to internal processes and norms, so it's important to outline that you understand it will take time to adjust. We strongly recommend that you move toward a more async work style that is focused on deep work over meeting culture. Asynchronous communication happens when information is exchanged without the expectation of an immediate response.
Study after study after study has shown remote workers are more productive than their in-office colleagues. Many people attribute productivity gains to the time saved commuting and the avoidance of office distractions, but a large part of it is really async communication and its ability to support deep work.
Deep work, a term coined by Cal Newport, is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. This distraction-free concentration pushes your cognitive abilities to their limit and creates new value, improves skills, and is hard to replicate in our world of instant satisfaction.
Deep work leads to better company outcomes and creates profound satisfaction for team members by enabling them to find flow. This in turn leads to more engaged employees.
Every organization is different, so encourage your team to talk about how to get more done in less time, whether it's by adopting async deep work, implementing new tools, eliminating unnecessary meetings, or making existing meetings more efficient.
After you have communicated the changes internally, you need to think through how to communicate it externally. Many companies fear customers will think reduced hours = reduced quality, but those worries can be reduced through adequate communication.
Identify who may be affected and outline how you've put in controls to avoid the potential issues. While a move toward deep work and less hours can impact responsiveness, the benefits they bring often increases customer satisfaction.
Step 4: Start working four days
You now value output over hours, communicate your intentions and have a clear definition of success. It's time to put it into practice. Remember, there will be hiccups and you'll likely need to give it a few months until you start to see the benefits.
Problems will arise, be patient. Do your best to fix them as they come and even more importantly, communicate how to fix them to the wider team. Issues aren't indicators of failure, but opportunities to improve and learn.
Trust that everyone is doing their best and support them to try out different ways of working to increase productivity and efficacy.
Step 5: Evaluate your implementation of the four-day workweek
After your pilot, you'll want to assess the qualitative and quantitive metrics that you defined in step 2. Qualitatively, ask your employees how they felt about the four-day workweek, send a survey to your customers, and look at changes in self-reported stress levels and work-life balance.
Quantitatively, look at your financials, growth rate, and any impact of the number of sick days employees took. Fewer sick days can suggest that employees were more well-rested and less burnt out.
Measuring the productivity of knowledge work is difficult, regardless of how much you work so you'll want to pair metrics that are quantifiable with metrics that focus on quality. For example, pair average response time with customer feedback to those responses. By pairing metrics, effect and counter-effect can be measured. For example, a slower response time but improved customer feedback isn't a problem.
You can learn more about choosing metrics, assessing output, quality, and productivity in this video:
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