There’s been a lot of talk about the potential benefits of working a four-day work week instead of a five-day week. Making 32 hours the norm instead of 40 can lead to improved well-being for workers without a loss of productivity for businesses.
A number of companies worldwide have pulled off a four-day workweek for a year or more, and Japan’s government has recommended it as a national policy. It’s not a new idea, but it seems to have come under greater consideration since the COVID-19 pandemic generated a broad re-evaluation of how we work, including a great work-from-home migration and hybrid office implementation.
Recently, a University of Cambridge research project has found that, on average, businesses adopting a four-day working pattern increased their revenues by more than a third. Switching to a four-day week makes companies more money while also boosting staff happiness and reducing burnout.
Supporters of the four-day week claim that it incentivises staff to do more in a shorter period of time. However, a previous study has suggested that it can in fact make employees less productive.
According to the Cambridge study, businesses generated 1.4% more revenue at the end of a six-month trial than they did at the start.
But when scientists compared the six-month window with a distinct and comparable half-year span they found the four-day workweek saw an increase in revenue of 34.5%.
A total of 61 British companies adopted a four-day week for the second half of 2022, with almost 3,000 staff involved.
The trial, which was coordinated by the campaign group 4 Day Week Global and the think tank Autonomy, found improved happiness and lower stress levels among the participating staff.
At least 56 businesses said they would continue with the four-day week, with 18 saying they will adopt the new policy permanently. Only three opted to scrap the scheme at the end of the pilot.
Four-day work week-what?
A four-day workweek is, ideally, a 32-hour workweek with no loss in productivity, pay, or benefits. Depending on the company and the industry, everyone might work Monday through Thursday and have Fridays off. Other possibilities include allowing each employee to choose their extra day off or having a company-wide policy of a different third day off, such as Monday or Wednesday.
There are pros and cons to each choice. For example, keeping everyone on the same schedule increases opportunities for collaborative work but leaves a company unstaffed on days when most others are working. A flexible third day off may be better for individual employees but harder for teams
The fundamental goal of a four-day workweek is to improve workers’ quality of life. By working fewer hours overall and having three full days off, people have more time for personal priorities like- Spending quality time with family, friends, and pets; Caregiving; Doctor appointments; Personal development; Education; Travel; Hobbies; Home maintenance and improvements; Household management etc.
Campaigners are calling for MPs to enshrine the right to a four-day week in law after hailing the latest results as a “major breakthrough”.
In the Cambridge study, interviews of staff and employers suggested the 32-hour work weeks did not harm the financial viability of businesses.
Shorter meetings with clearer agendas, for example, were cited as an important change to make work hours more focused and efficient, as was the introduction of interruption-free ‘focus periods’, reforming email etiquette to reduce long chains, reviewing production processes, and more effective handovers.
However, some staff raised concerns over the more concentrated working pattern. Some said intensifying workloads were a concern, while some people in creative industries lamented the loss of unstructured chit-chat which they claim is when many ideas are generated.
Each participating company designed its own schedule to cut work hours by 20% in order to best meet the demands of the business.
A three-day weekend with Friday off was the most popular option, but other companies alternated shorter days across a week, or even several months.
Participating organisations in the trial came from a wide range of sectors, including financial service providers, animation studios, a local fish-and-chip shop, restaurants and marketing firms.
The scientists at the University of Cambridge, the University College Dublin and Boston College discovered that the number of sick days dropped from two days per employee per month, on average, down to 0.7, a decline of 65%.
The number of people leaving the companies also dropped by more than half, with a 57% reduction in the rate of resignations in the same company during the four-day week trial compared to a comparative time frame.
Self-reported levels of staff burnout were down 71%, more than a third of employees said they were less stressed and 60% of staff said the extra day of free time found it easier to combine their job with care responsibilities.
The findings from the U.K. trial build on the results of an earlier, smaller pilot published in November 2022 and also coordinated by 4 Day Week Global. That experiment, which involved about 30 companies and 1,000 employees in several countries, resulted in increased revenue, reduced absenteeism and resignations, and improved employee well-being. None of the participating firms planned to return to five-day work weeks after the pilot ended.
The 4 Day Week Global group is coordinating these pilot programs as part of its global campaign to encourage more firms to switch from the standard 40-hour workweek to a 32-hour model for the same pay and benefits.
Challenges with the four-day workweek
A four-day workweek doesn’t always mean that employees maintain their pay and benefits. Some organizations have reportedly used a four-day week as a cost-saving measure, like Stanley Black and Decker and the Los Angeles Times, which managed to trim 20% from payroll costs for three months. And short-term trials that demonstrate success with a four-day workweek can differ from long-term outcomes.
A four-day week that requires people to work 10-hour days can be incompatible with wage regulations or prove too gruelling for employees, failing to either improve productivity or save the company money.
Not all individuals like the idea of a four-day workweek, for a number of reasons. For example, they may enjoy the social aspects of their jobs or find their work so engaging that they don’t want to do less of it. And some workers might find that a compressed week gives them a constant pre-vacation-type pressure to get more work done in less time a level of stress that’s unsustainable.
It is also been bemoaned that simply shortening the workweek is not enough to improve employee engagement in a poorly managed organization.
Then there’s the question of industry. It’s relatively easier for jobs that rely on knowledge workers to move to a compressed schedule compared to jobs that rely on service work. We wouldn’t want to see customer service or tech support, let alone hospitals and fire departments take three days off per week with zero coverage though allowing individual workers to have four-day weeks could be possible.
In addition, it may not be possible to increase productivity enough in service or logistics jobs to achieve the same results in fewer hours just by working smarter.
Then there are also practical and cultural barriers to working fewer days. If working five days a week (or seven in some industries) remains the norm, then the companies that have a shorter workweek may cause frustrating delays at the companies that work longer weeks. It takes a mindset shift to accept these delays, knowing that they are supporting workers’ well-being.
Many companies and workers have succeeded with a condensed workweek and enjoyed benefits such as increased productivity and more time to pursue personal interests and goals. However, a four-day schedule does not work for all industries, businesses, or individuals. Furthermore, it won’t fix a toxic workplace or an unpleasant job.
The re-evaluation of work forced upon the world by the COVID-19 pandemic has driven increased interest in the idea of a four-day workweek. But making it the new normal will require making a cultural and mindset shift that deemphasizes work; taking a hard look at work activities that can be automated, deprioritized, or dropped; and overcoming discomfort and inertia around change.