The Impact of Working a 4-Day Week

There’s been a lot of talk about the potential benefits of working a four-day 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 studies have shown that at some point, productivity decreases as the number of hours worked increases. Forty-hour workweeks may be wearing people out needlessly.

A number of companies worldwide have pulled it off for a year or more, and Japan’s government has recommended it as national policy. While it’s not a new idea, it seems to have come under greater consideration since the COVID-19 pandemic generated a broad reevaluation of the way we work, including a great work-from-home migration and hybrid office implementation.

Key Takeaways

  • The idea behind a four-day workweek is to achieve the same results in fewer hours so people have more time to pursue other interests, spend time with loved ones, and manage their lives.
  • Companies could benefit through increased sales, decreased worker burnout, and lower turnover, among other positives.
  • Emphasizing results instead of hours logged means there’s no need to cut pay or benefits.
  • A major shift in how we think about and approach work is a precursor to standardizing a four-day workweek.

What Is a Four-Day Workweek?

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. Keeping everyone on the same schedule, for example, 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.

Andrew Barnes, author of “The 4 Day Week”

“The five-day week is a nineteenth-century construct that is not fit for purpose in the twenty-first century.”

The Origins of Working Less

The idea of getting more work done in less time to increase time off is not new. We all have the Ford Motor Company (and the industrial revolution) to thank for our current five-day week instead of a six-day week. What began as an experiment at some plants in July 1926 became company policy by September that same year.

A federal law called the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), passed in 1938, mandated 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 provided for a 42-hour workweek in 1939 and a 40-hour workweek in 1940.

Henry Ford had been contemplating the idea of a five-day workweek since at least 1916 before implementing it in 1926.

Experiments with a four-day week in the United States have been taking place since at least the 1990s. Another early-ish experiment took place in 2004, when the government of Spanish Fork City, Utah, implemented a schedule of four, 10-hour days for city employees. Utah’s state government experimented with a 4/10 schedule from 2008 through 2011. And the idea was picking up steam even before the pandemic, with more job openings offering it in 2018 and 2019 than in 2017.

How Many Hours Are We Really Working?

Data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) show that the average annual hours worked by employed people in 2020 were lowest in Germany at 1,332 (25.6 per week). Americans work an average of 1,767 hours (34 per week), while Canadians work 1,664 hours (32 per week). Among other places experimenting with four-day workweeks, those in the United Kingdom work 26 hours per week, Spaniards work 30 hours per week, and the Japanese work 31 hours per week.

When you look at these numbers, it would seem that the average American who is 16 or older already has almost the equivalent of a four-day workweek, and workers in some other countries have even more free time.

But if you look at the U.S. data more carefully, you’ll find that high school and college-age workers pull down the average. In 2020, 16- to 19-year-olds worked an average of 24 hours per week, and 20- to 24-year-olds worked 34 hours per week. Individuals ages 25 and older worked 39 hours per week, on average.

Benefits of a Four-Day Workweek

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 these:

  • Spending quality time with family, friends, and pets
  • Caregiving
  • Doctor’s appointments
  • Personal development
  • Education
  • Travel
  • Hobbies
  • Home maintenance and improvements
  • Life admin

But there has to be something in it for employers, too. Companies that truly put their people first are the exception, not the norm. (By one count, there are only 69—with criteria that include diversity/inclusivity, flexible schedules, remote work, and a 40-hour-or-less workweek.)

These are the benefits employers might expect from giving employees more control over their time:

  • Increased sales
  • Reduced employee burnout and improved employee retention
  • Lower operating costs for an office (unless the company is already all-remote)
  • A larger applicant pool for open positions.

A shorter week may have environmental benefits from reduced commuting and traffic congestion.

Challenges of a Four-Day Workweek

A four-day week doesn’t always mean that employees maintain their pay and benefits. Some organizations, including the Los Angeles Times and Stanley Black & Decker, have reportedly used a four-day week as a cost-saving measure and have cut employees’ pay by 20%. And short-term trials that demonstrate success with a four-day week can differ from long-term outcomes.

Treehouse, an online coding school, implemented a four-day workweek from the get-go in 2013. Its CEO, Ryan Carson, had used the strategy from 2006 at his previous company. As late as 2015, he was publicly praising the compressed week’s benefits from improved productivity to a more balanced life.

But in 2016, he reinstated a 40-hour week at his company and also had to lay people off. He said the 32-hour week created a lack of work ethic in himself that was fundamentally detrimental to the business and its mission. In 2018, he said he was working 65 hours a week under a regimented schedule beginning at 4:30 a.m. and ending at 6:00 p.m. with early morning breaks for exercise, breakfast, and time with his wife, but no breaks from 8:30 a.m. on.

A four-day week that requires people to work 10-hour days can be incompatible with wage regulations or prove too grueling for employees, failing to improve productivity or save the company money. In the 1990s, a number of organizations found this to be the case and went with a 9/80 schedule instead, where people work nine hours Monday through Thursday and eight hours every other Friday in exchange for getting alternate Fridays off.

Not all individuals like the idea of a four-day workweek, for a number of reasons. They may enjoy the social aspects of their jobs, for example, 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.

Indeed, based on the results of a poll it conducted in March 2020, Gallup concluded that while individuals working four-day weeks reported lower levels of burnout and higher levels of well-being compared to people working five- or six-day weeks, the percentage of actively disengaged workers was lowest among those who worked five-day weeks.

Gallup found that for employee engagement, the quality of the work experience was more important than the number of days worked. Simply shortening the workweek is not enough to improve employee engagement in a poorly managed organization. Still, workers do place a high value on schedule flexibility, which can lower stress levels and help them manage other aspects of their lives more effectively, allowing them to be more engaged at work.

Then there’s the question of industry. It’s relatively easier for jobs that rely on knowledge work 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. There’s a physical limit to how many items Amazon Warehouse employees can pick per hour or how many delivery locations a UPS driver can hit in a day. However, one study did find that call center agents became less productive as their hours increased: It took them longer to handle calls.

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.

A Four-Day Workweek Myth

You may have read that Iceland has successfully adopted a four-day workweek. Anthony Zeal, an adjunct professor in the business school at the University of Technology Sydney, explains this myth in an article for The Conversation, an independent, nonprofit news organization whose articles are composed by university scholars and researchers with expertise in the subjects they write about.

What’s actually happened, Zeal writes, is that major media outlets have misreported the findings of a study in which 2,500 government workers in 66 workplaces in Iceland tried moving from a 40-hour week to a 35- or 36-hour week. Most of the workplaces ended up cutting back by only one to three hours a week, though they were able to maintain their productivity and provide the same level of service. The experiment did result in a country-wide decrease in hours worked, but only by 35 minutes in the private sector and 65 minutes in the public sector.

A Four-Day Workweek Success Story

Wildbit, a small software company founded in Philadelphia in 1999, experimented with a four-day workweek in 2017 and made it permanent. The company’s emphasis on outcomes rather than volume, and on focused, deep work rather than hours logged, has allowed it to succeed with this policy.

The company’s four-day week is part of its people-first philosophy, which holds that work enables life and that providing good benefits while prioritizing the well-being of the business over its workers is not the right approach. The company is also remote-first and provides location-agnostic pay.

What Strategies Have Companies Used to Succeed With a Four-Day Workweek?

  • Prioritize and reevaluate tasks
  • Minimize interruptions and distractions
  • Increase automation
  • Emphasize human creativity
  • Limit work-based social events
  • Reduce and shorten meetings
  • Spend less time on email and messaging apps
  • Define clear goals
  • Set goals that are achievable within a shorter workweek
  • Measure outcomes, not hours
  • Implement asynchronous work
  • Maintain employee pay
  • Trust workers
  • Solicit regular employee feedback
  • Learn from trial and error

What Are Some Companies That Have Tried a Four-Day Workweek?

The list is extensive, but here are 13:

  • Atlassian
  • Buffer
  • Bunny Studio
  • The Financial Diet
  • Galt Pharmaceuticals
  • GooseChase
  • Microsoft Japan
  • Perpetual Guardian
  • TGW Studio
  • Treehouse
  • UpBuild
  • Wanderlust Group
  • Wildbit

Who Is Promoting Wider Adoption of a Four-Day Workweek?

  • 4 Day Week Global
  • Wildbit
  • Buffer
  • The Japanese government
  • The Scottish government
  • The Spanish government

Where Can I Learn More About How to Succeed at a Four-Day Week?

Try these books:

  • The 4 Day Week: How the Flexible Work Revolution Can Increase Productivity, Profitability and Well-Being and Help Create a Sustainable Future by Andrew Barnes
  • Shorter: Work Better, Smarter, and Less―Here’s How by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
  • Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

And these online resources:

The Bottom Line

Many companies and workers have succeeded with a condensed workweek and have 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 reevaluation of work forced upon the world by the COVID-19 pandemic has driven increased interest in the idea of a four-day week. 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.

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