Several years ago, the idea of giving employees an extra day off each week for the same pay may have sounded impossible. But there’s no denying this trend is starting to gain traction: from New Zealand to Spain to the U.S., the idea of a four-day work week has been increasing in popularity, especially when technology is increasing productivity and efficiency, and many employees feel burned out and exhausted. In a 2021 Harvard Business Review global survey, 89% of respondents said that their work life was getting worse. That same study found that 85% of respondents reported lower levels of well-being and 62% said they had experienced burnout during the pandemic.
In our 2020 Resetting Normal research, there was overwhelming support for a more flexible working schedule in the future. Seventy six percent of executive or C-level managers said that employee contracts should focus more on meeting the needs of the business rather than hours worked. In that same group, 74% of executives or C-level managers say that employers should revisit the length of the working week and the number of hours that employers are expected to work. Support remains high for managers and employees as well.
Though the four-day work week has been trending in recent months, the idea is not new: in 1930, renowned British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that people would work as few as 15 hours in 100 years (by 2030). Several years later, then-U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon said he expected a transition to a four-day week soon. “These are not dreams or idle boasts,” he said. “They are simple projections of the [recent] gains we have made.”
Across the world, companies both large and small are experimenting with the idea of a four-day work week. In New Zealand, consumer-goods corporation Unilever is halfway through its 12-month test run of a shorter work week. In March, Spain became one of the first countries in the world to test a four-day working week in a pilot project featuring several dozen companies. In 2022, the fundraising company Kickstarter will begin testing out the four-day work week with their employees. When the pandemic started, social media scheduling company Buffer launched their own four-day work week, giving employees an extra day off each week without reducing their pay. The company launched the experiment on a whim and may never return to a full five-day work week.
The discussion over reducing time spent at work has come at a crucial time when businesses have begun to seriously debate the future of work. It’s not just time spent at work. Companies have begun questioning the value of their physical office space as the world prepares for a post-pandemic reality. Some have shifted to permanently remote way of working – while others have opted for flexible schedules.
The debate over the four-day work week is just one part of trending discussions about the future of work. Read what the proponents and opponents of the four-day work week say about the concept.
That was certainly the realization one of my clients came to recently. In the middle of the pandemic, I got a call from a C-level leader who was concerned about the dynamics of a team of senior leaders he brought together just before workplaces were locked down. It was an impressive collection of executives, all of them boasting extensive technical knowledge and years of experience.
Advantages of a Shorter Work Week
People who work a four-day week say they’re healthier, happier, and less time-pressured, according to a report in The Atlantic – and their employers say their employees are much more focused and efficient. In fact, when employees feel their employer cares about them, 94% of employees have a positive sense of wellbeing, research shows. The optimal amount of intense cognitive work time is no more than four hours each day, research shows.
Here’s what supporters of the four-day work week say are some of the biggest advantages of the concept:
Fewer Distractions at Work: Andrew Barnes, the owner of New Zealand law firm Perpetual Guardian, launched a four-day work week in 2018. Employees opted to install lockers for their phones, soundproof meeting spaces, and shorten meetings. Barnes found that even though workers were working less time, employees spent 35% less time on nonwork websites. Because employees had more time to manage their household and life responsibilities outside work, nonwork responsibilities were much less likely to intrude on the workday.
Longer Hours Does Not Mean More Output: Supporters of shorter working weeks say that the current work environment is defined increasingly by long hours and the “always-on” mentality. But that’s not necessarily the best way to support productivity, according to Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. The success of companies shaving hours – or days – off the workday points to a failure of imagination on the part of managers.
Increased Mental Wellbeing and Physical Health: Workers who have been working fewer days a week report a number of positive side effects, from exercising more to finishing a Master’s program early to volunteering more to simply finding time to cope with the effects of the pandemic. This, in turn, has a net positive impact on a workers’ productivity at the office. “I like to take walks … just wander and let my brain breathe,” Natalie Nagele, the Wildbit CEO, told The Atlantic. The company has a shorter working week.
Lowering Our Global Carbon Footprint: Studies have shown that American employees drive 17% fewer miles on a weekend compared to a weekday. A four-day work week would reduce reduce carbon emissions in the U.S. by 45 million metric tons—more than the total emissions of U.S. states Oregon and Vermont combined. Parents will also have more time to make meals for their families, leading to healthier and more sustainable choices.
“It’s not by running a sweatshop … it’s more about working smarter,” Diamondback’s CEO, Ben Eltz, told The Atlantic. Diamondback cut five hours of the work week when the pandemic started – but did not decrease pay. The company expected a drop in productivity, but instead found increased efficiency. During a 40-hour week, “very rarely does a person say, ‘I got my work done—now I’m going to go see how else I can help.’ It’s that teamwork idea of, everyone’s shooting for that common goal of ‘Let’s make this work.’” In Japan’s four-day work week trial, they found the experiment boosted productivity by 40%.
Parents with children find themselves less stressed out – with more time to spend with their families, leading to a more balanced life. Caretakers of elderly parents also have an opportunity to help their loved ones. “One of the biggest factors in people’s level of work-family satisfaction is the pure number of work hours they have,” Melissa Milkie, a sociologist at the University of Toronto who studies time use, told The Atlantic. “So cutting it is huge … It would re-balance things for working families.”
Disadvantages of a Shorter Work Week
Those who oppose a four-day work week highlight some of the following arguments:
The Cost: Those against the four-day work week point to the cost of recruiting employees. In the U.S., and in other countries, full-time employees cost more than their annual salary: employers also cover the cost of benefits like pensions and health insurance. Employers may not be able to hire more people to cover decreased working hours. In addition, in many countries, workers prioritize a higher pay to working fewer days a week – or fewer hours. In a 2014 YouGov and HuffPost poll, approximately 50% of American workers said they would work an additional day a week for 20% more pay. Part-time workers were even more likely to make the trade.
The Equality: If a four-day work week starts to seriously gain traction, one of the biggest disadvantages could be that it might widen existing inequalities. Such a concept might widen existing inequalities between knowledge workers and flexible or manual workers who are usually paid based on the time they spend working.
Not All Industries Can Participate: Some industries require a 24/7 presence or other similar scheduling for optimal flow, making a four-day work week hard to implement. For example, if your business revolves around customer service, opponents have pointed out that it may be difficult to manage problems that arise with customers during four-day week. It can be important for companies to address issues during the weekdays and weekends, no matter the industry. Making sure each area of the business is covered during the workday can require more effort scheduling and forethought.
The Risk Is Expensive: Opponents say the most glaring drawback for employers is the cost risk associated with a four-day work week, especially if employees fail to meet work requirements. In Sweden’s two-year trial of a reduced working week (from 40 hours a week to 30 hours a week), they found higher worker satisfaction, but the experiment became far too costly to continue successfully.
Workers May Put In The Same Hours Anyways: Certain jobs just take time to do completely, and some jobs may not be suited to reduced hours. In one four-day work week experiment in France, they found workers ended up putting in the same hours anyways. The only difference? The company had to pay overtime, an added expense for the company.
Difficult Team Management: Managing multiple teams on a four-day work week can be challenging, especially if the business runs 24/7. If these employee days off are scattered, it can be difficult to set up team meetings and it can be difficult to manage projects. Employees may also feel pressured to tune in on their days off, so they don’t miss anything important.