Showing up to work five days a week is so ingrained it’s hard to imagine anything else - yet not working on Saturdays and Sundays is still a fairly recent invention. US carmaker Henry Ford popularised the shorter working week in the 1920s, and a new normal was born. But a century later, does the five-day or 40-hour week still work for us? Let’s dive into some of the biggest challenges for companies looking to implement a 4 day work week.
How the world is embracing the four-day week
The United Arab Emirates adopted a four-and-a-half-day working week in 2021. Countless other countries - Spain, Scotland and Belgium among them - are trialling working fewer hours without dropping pay or productivity.
Many employers are ahead of the curve on this. In 2021, Atom bank became Britain’s largest company to adopt a four-day week, moving from 37 to 34 hours. When Toyota described in 2015 how it had shifted to a 30-hour week in Sweden, it had already been in place for 12 years.
The potential benefits can be profound. Toyota asked employees to work six hours a day but continued to pay them for eight - resulting in shorter customer waiting times, better productivity and low employee turnover. And when they built a new facility geared towards the six-hour day they were able to make it much smaller despite hiring more people, because the workforce was now spread across two shifts.
The reported benefits cascade further, from better employee mental health (and reduced absence) to a smaller carbon footprint and lower overheads. But there can be significant challenges to implementing a four-day week.
1. The financial costs of switching
When it concluded in 2017, a two-year trial involving 68 nurses at an old people’s home in Gothenburg was deemed too expensive to roll-out regionally. The experiment created jobs and reduced sick pay yet cost the city 12 million Kroner (£1.1m) in extra staff.
Not surprisingly, the cost implications vary by sector. At New Zealand finance company Perpetual Guardian, staff feedback identified a need for investment into remote work tech and automation (i.e., chat bots).
US company Wildbit moved to a permanent four-day week in 2017. They’ve invested in its success by paying staff to create remote environments suitable for deep focus and quality work.
Online coding school Treehouse started life in 2013 with the 32-hour week as standard. By 2016 they’d gone the other way - to a 40-hour week.
CEO Ryan Carson has explained why the four-day week didn’t work for Treehouse, saying ultimately it contributed to a reduced work ethic. This aligns with Perpetual Guardian, where managers found increased productivity depended on whether employees saw the new model as a privilege or a right.