Like death, taxes and the fact that the sun rises in the East, the five-day work week has long felt like one of life's great certainties. But not anymore.

The concept of the four-day week has been gaining ground in recent years, challenging the Monday-to-Friday norm. Microsoft Japan, the Icelandic government and Unilever New Zealand are among organisations that have trialled the approach, reporting positive results. 

There is a distinction between this experimental four-day week, where people are paid 100% of their salary for less of their time, and part-time contracts that are already common in many regions and professions. The debate for and against a four-day week also masks the many other options involved in shifting to a more flexible way of working.

The trials continue to generate hype and headlines, but the world of work is still a long way off from rolling out that model at any significant scale. However, we caught up with three professionals who are already working at 80% as part of a reduced contract, to find out more about the reality of working at a different rhythm and what insight into the four-day week we could glean from it. 

Why work a reduced week?

Diana Mussetti works from Monday to Thursday for 80% of the salary she used to receive when she worked full time. She started working on this schedule about a year ago when she returned from maternity leave, although she eased into it from 60% at first. “Due to my current role and responsibilities I did not want to work any less than 80%,” she explains. “In 3 days it’s just impossible to be involved in many projects!” 

Ceri Radford, who manages the editorial team at a digital communications agency, also wanted to reserve some time that she could spend with her child. She explains: “To start with, I used the extra day to write. Now, as a parent in a country where there’s no school on a Wednesday, I get extra time with my daughter.”

For Caroline Styr, however, working fewer hours gives her more time for other endeavours. “I started working towards my Masters when the pandemic first hit and we went into lockdown. While managing this worked pretty well at the start, as soon as restrictions started easing and commuting, social lives and everything else that was put on hold came back, it quickly became a strain,” she recounts. “At first I felt that the 4-day week kind of flexibility was the reserve of people who had caring responsibilities (which I don’t). But after a nudge from a very supportive mentor, I thought about my own priorities, my health and general wellbeing and decided that not everything has to be so black-and-white.”

 What are the main advantages?

The perks of working fewer hours are clear to Ceri: “freedom, flexibility, balance.” Overall, she feels more energised and focused in her four days at work which often leads to her being more productive. This link between working fewer hours and increased productivity was also clear to Stanford University in its in-depth study. To cut a lot of complicated mathematical equations short - overworked employees are actually less productive than employees working fewer hours. Point in case; working fewer hours means Caroline is “raring to go when Monday morning rolls around knowing it’s been a good break since the laptop was last opened.” 

Diana mainly appreciates having more control over her workload. “It’s a bit easier for me to say 'I don’t have time for this', because I literally don’t have it.” The Resetting Normal Report 2021 revealed employees are searching for job opportunities that allow them to reclaim control over their schedule. When asked to rank how important aspects of their working life would be after the pandemic, “being able to maintain a good work/life balance” was ranked 1st for Baby Boomers and 2nd most important for Millennials and Generation X.

What’s more, in every country and region examined there is a disparity between how many people worked 40 hours or more in the past 12 months and how many think they need to work that much to get their job done. This contrast was clearest in China, where 82% had worked 40 hours or more, but only 49% thought they needed to. Working four days might allow these workers to focus on their job and exercise more control over what creeps into their to-do list, like Diana.

What about the disadvantages?

Ceri makes no secret of the fact that there are drawbacks to a reduced schedule. “It’s not a stress-free nirvana. Many jobs aren’t easily cut to 80%, and you sometimes feel like you’re cramming a full-time job into fewer days, while juggling a kid in one hand and a phone in the other on your day off,” she admits. “I’m the last person to click on that funny YouTube video or linger over a coffee break because I’m always aware of time.” 

On top of the reduced salary, Diana emphasises the fact that her reduced week has forced her to become extremely efficient. The main drawback for her, though, is how it can limit her in her capacity to take tasks on. “Sometimes the feeling of not being able to do everything is very frustrating,” she confesses.

Caroline has only been working a 4-day week for a few weeks now, but already she can spot a few warning signs up the road. “I’m expecting that it’ll be pretty hard to maintain boundaries and ensure that work doesn’t bleed into that fifth day,” she says. “Striking the balance between being a great colleague and team player and someone who says 'I’ll pick this up when I’m back on Monday' might be a bit of a challenge.”

These experiences all point to a potential flaw in the practicalities of a reduced week. In theory it sounds like the ideal solution, but in practice there is a real risk that reduced hours simply become compressed hours that lead to even more stress for the worker. To be done well, working fewer hours will require strong boundaries and discipline both from the worker and their employer. Ceri sees this from both sides: "As a manager, I have team members who also work 80%, which adds a layer of complexity to coordination, but it's worth it to keep talented people motivated at a pace that works for their lives."

So what's the verdict?

Caroline is onboard. “I’m pretty determined to prove that a 4-day week can work for anyone,” she states. “But it’s not just organisations that have to figure it out, workers need a total shift in mindset too regarding their worth. The need to be present is drilled into us from school, isn’t it? So, it’s going to take a lot to get us out of that mindset, I think.”

Four-day work week experiments begin and end seemingly daily around the globe. While some are touting it as a short-term remedy to the ‘Great Resignation’ as a means to attract talent back to the workforce, others are hastily calling it the future of work. At this point, the jury is still very much out. There are clear advantages and disadvantages, and these will vary from person to person, from job to job, from industry to industry. 

One important factor to consider is gender: it's telling that in the research for this article, only women came forwards. In fact, research shows that men are less likely to ask for part-time work and more likely to face stigma if they work reduced hours. Until these attitudes are challenged, we won't be able to unpick the structures that mean women shoulder the majority of care work, feeding into a stubborn gender pay gap. 

Before embarking on a version of the experiment, employers should consider the real, tangible challenges they will have to overcome to make it work and whether it is a realistic prospect. Who knows, if they get it right, it could pave the way towards a healthier and fairer world of work.