After almost 100 years of working within the confines of the 5-day work week paradigm, a shift may be on the horizon. 2022 saw a flurry of independent and orchestrated pilot programs experimenting with a 4-day work week. Such experiments aren’t entirely new, for example Basecamp, a software company headquartered in the U.S., has had a policy of a 4-day work week over the summer months since 2008, whilst a host of other (mostly tech) firms have implemented shortened work weeks over the last 3-4 years.
Last year saw the first independently run, large-scale studies, conducted by 4 Day Week Global (4DWG), a not-for-profit organisation that is dedicated to supporting the idea of a 4-day week as a key feature of the future of work. The studies took place across 91 companies (3500 employees) globally and saw companies move to a 4-day week with no decrease in pay. The results have reinforced what many of these individual organisations have found; that shortening the work week has resulted in diverse benefits, not just for individuals, but for the organisations themselves.
The increase in the willingness of organisations to consider adopting a 4-day week has likely been driven by their experience of flexible working hours and conditions during the Covid-19 pandemic. Many individual leaders and businesses found that despite a huge shift in how, when and where their employees worked, they ultimately could trust their employees to continue to remain productive and meet their objectives. This seems to have increased the appetite of some organisations to experiment with other kinds of flexibility.
This perception of retained productivity seems to be supported by the data in the largest, U.K. based 4DWG study, which found that there were both direct and indirect benefits to moving to a 4-day working week. The 4DWG report highlights that revenue rose by 1.4% over the course of the trial (weighted by company size) and added that when compared to similar periods in previous years organisations reported an average revenue increase of 35%.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that this is ultimately down to efficiency gains that are easier to drive in the context of the shortened work week; for example, changing the culture around unnecessarily long (or just plain unnecessary) meetings.
In addition to the organisational-level outcomes, the employee level benefits are striking. There have been remarkable benefits to individuals in terms of their physical and mental wellbeing, with 71% of employees reporting reduced levels of burnout. However, the picture wasn’t completely positive; whilst 39% of employees saw a decrease in their stress levels over the trial period, another 16.7% saw an increase in their stress levels, due to tighter schedules.
Despite the mixed impact on stress levels, 90% of staff said they definitely wanted to continue on a 4-day week. In fact, 42% of staff claimed they would need a 25-50% salary increase if they were to return to a 5-day working week and 15% said they wouldn’t do it for any amount.
So, perhaps it’s no surprise that 92% of those companies in 4DWG’s trial said they would either definitely continue with the 4-day week or were planning to. The question is, how much of that decision was driven by increased revenue and retention, and how much was due to employee sentiment?
In addition to the organisations involved in this and other similar experiments, many Governments have also been trialling 4-day work weeks. Iceland experimented with a reduction in hours from 40 to 35 between 2015 and 2019 and by 2021, 86% of the country had the right to a reduced working week as a result of union advocacy. Similarly, in 2022 a bill was enacted in Belgium, giving employees the choice between a 4 or 5-day working week; though notably this would not reduce overall hours and would simply give Belgians the option to condense their work week into fewer days.
As noted by Sydney Morning Herald journalist Sarah Green Carmichael last year (The Burnout Shadow), the 4-day work week is implemented in various ways ranging from employees working 4 x 10-hour days (a practice called “four tens”), to getting Fridays off without working longer on the previous four days, to those who reduce the overall workload by making the days shorter – such that a four-day week is really still a five-day week, but employees can finish at 4pm instead of at 5pm or 6pm.
- Carmichael highlights the potential wellbeing risks to employees and the increases in human error when employees work extended shifts in contexts that vary from healthcare to consulting and the difficulties untangling the upsides and shadow sides to employees and organisations when workloads and overall hours are not decreased, noting that to truly make the 4-day week successful, organisations will have to shrink the workweek, not shift it. 4 Day Week Global calls this the 100-80-100™️ model (100% of the pay, for 80% of the time, in exchange for a commitment to deliver 100% of the output) which was the guiding principle in their trials.
The move to a four-day work week still seems far off for many organisations; particularly large-scale corporate entities who appear to be absent from these pilot programs and trials, and perhaps they are right to be wary, after all, it seems as if it is difficult to put the 5-day week genie back in the bottle. It’s likely that they will need more data to convince them to experiment in their own organisations, and this too is on the way with further trials beginning under the 4DWG banner this month.
So, whilst we may not envision a rapid shift in the working patterns of our largest listed entities any time soon, it is worth reflecting on pre-Covid attitudes in which many could not imagine just how normalised remote and hybrid working would become. As such, there may be value in thought experiments:
- What might a shortened work week look like for your team?
- What would it require you to do differently to manage a simultaneous increase in productivity and wellbeing?
- Could some of those interventions regarding meeting culture and traditional KPIs be worth experimenting with even in the absence of a formal shortening of the work week?
From a wellbeing and productivity perspective these are questions well worth asking.