After the shift to remote work, new hope for a four-day workweek

The five-day, 40-hour workweek has been the standard for more than 100 years. But the shifts brought about since 2020 by the pandemic are prompting new talk that a four-day workweek makes more sense.

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The global shift over the past two years to remote work has led to something unexpected: an uptick in the adoption of a four-day workweek, raising hopes that a tipping point could come soon.

In a number of industries, calls for a change to the standard five-day, 40-hour week grew after many companies began to rethink how work is done in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. “This has given organizations the confidence they need to consider adopting flexible work arrangements such as the four-day week,” said Raúl Castañón, senior analyst at 451 Research, a division of S&P Global Market Intelligence.

There are a variety of recent examples of companies trying out a four-day week or moving toward one permanently. Bolt, a fintech startup, recently committed to a four-day week long term, as did social media software firm Buffer last year. Crowd-funding company Kickstarter is due to start a trial this year, Unilever ran a pilot for staffers in New Zealand last year, Panasonic pledged last month to give workers a four-day-week option, and real estate management firm JLL hinted at similar intentions.

“Demand for a four-day workweek is growing,” said David Spencer, professor of economics and political economy at the UK’s University of Leeds.

For workers, the idea is that an additional day off will increase autonomy, improve well-being and reduce stress. There are advantages for employers, too: those that have moved to a shorter week have indicated employees are just as productive when well-rested and focused, and companies can cut down on sick leave.

“This suggests that a five-day workweek may be relatively inefficient,” said Spencer. 

And with the battle to recruit and retain staff already under way, a shorter week is seen as yet another way businesses can attract and retain the best workers.

The long road to a short week

The five-day workweek has been the standard for US workers since the start of the 20th century, following decades of labor reforms. By 1926, workers at Ford’s auto manufacturing plants were offered a five-day, 40-hour week, as a shorter week and reduced hours reached mainstream acceptance.

Two years later, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted a 15-hour workweek within a century. (That didn’t pan out, of course.) And despite innovations in the ensuing decades that improved worker output — and continued calls for a reduction in hours — the four-day workweek has remained largely out of reach. Recent Gallup poll data indicates that 5% of US employees now work four days a week; twice as many (11%) put in six days, with the overwhelming majority (84%) toiling away for five.

“Technology may have secured us the ability to produce more stuff, but it has not yet won us the freedom to work less,” said Spencer.

But the concept never fades completely. State-backed trials in several countries have surfaced some positive effects of a shorter week and offer a glimpse of how it could be implemented.

A widely noted pilot scheme in Iceland — carried out between 2015 and 2019, with findings published last year — saw hours for 2,500 workers reduced from 40 a week to 35, resulting in a range of employee well-being benefits and improved productivity. Similar results came from a trial in Sweden, published in 2017, where healthcare workers switched to six-hour days, though both projects led to increased costs of staff recruitment.

In the private sector, various companies have tested the idea. Microsoft tried a four-day week with staff in Japan on a temporary basis in 2019, for example, noting a lift in both staff well-being and productivity.

Remote work opens door to new patterns

The renewed interest in idea ow stems from the willingness of companies to experiment with new ways of working. The shift to remote work loosened ties with the standard 9-to-5 office routine, with many seeking flexible schedules to look after children or care for parents while working from home. In essence, if staffers are available for meetings when necessary — and output remains the same — it’s less important where, or when, an employee actually works.

“It's no surprise that some of the most visible proponents of the four-day workweek are companies that have been doing fully remote work for some time, because they're essentially saying, ‘We don't need to do this for five days arbitrarily. As long as we're getting the job done, take whatever time you want,’” said James McQuivey, vice president and research director at analyst firm Forrester.

“[The four-day week] is really facilitated by the shift in thinking of, ‘How many hours is someone working?’ versus ‘How much value are they creating?’” he said.

A four-day week has also been touted as a way to reduce stress for remote workers. Despite initial concerns about workers’ ability to remain productive at home, early indications are that the opposite is true: burnout is more an issue as employees work additional hours at home and struggle to switch off outside of the traditional 9-to-5 day.

“COVID showed us that you can send workers home and they’ll end up working just as hard, if not harder,” said Grace Lordan, associate professor at the London School of Economics and founding director of The Inclusion Initiative at the UK university.

“You have a population of workers who have been on call for a long time, so it’s not surprising they’re burnt out. Demands [for a four-day week] are coming from the fact that people realize this is unsustainable.”

A four-day week in practice

At security software company DNSFilter, employees reported “less stress, higher productivity levels, and increased job satisfaction” since the start of a four-day week pilot project last year, said Laura Durfee, director of talent acquisition at DNSFilter.

DNSFilter offers a four-day week “on rotation,” with two groups of employees alternately taking a Friday off, with the same pay and benefits as before. The initiative was deemed a success, and the arrangement has since been made permanent.

A two-day weekend isn't enough time for many people to fully recharge, said Durfee — especially in the “new normal,” where work and personal lives are blurred and the average “workday” has been informally extended. With a three-day weekend, employees have more time to devote to personal matters and appointments, she said, meaning they tend to accomplish much more in the four days they are actually at work.

Another motivator has been attracting and retaining talent, said Durfee. “As a high-growth startup, we are competing against many major players to hire the best employees, and four-day workweeks are a huge differentiator.”

At New Zealand recruitment firm Talent Army, the move to a four-day week also boosted productivity levels. Talent Army’s plan involved giving all employees the option of taking Friday off, with one person designated to be “on-call” on a rotating basis each week to answer urgent inquiries. “We found people were able to get their work done in the four days with very minimal work being done on our day off,” said Troy Hammond, founder of Talent Army. 

Working in the service business meant it was critical for Talent Army to communicate the change to customers to smooth the transition, said Hammond. “We had to educate our clients to know that we would not be online one day a week,” he said. And while it was a challenge at first, clients were supportive and feedback was positive.

How to organize a four-day week without disruption

There are numerous ways to set up a four-day week. For many, it simply means all staff get a set day off each week with no change in remuneration. (At some companies, a four-day week is optional, with pay reduced accordingly.)

Other strategies include condensing a full 40-hour week into four 10-hour days, with no net reduction in working time; switching from five eight-hour days to five six-hour days; a four-day week implemented biweekly, with a day off every other week; and a four-day week introduced seasonally, with employees given a day off each week during quieter summer months. Some organizations offer “flexible” or “agile” Fridays, where employees are still expected to be on call if needed.

Not all businesses find it easy to strike the right balance. Wellcome Trust, a UK health research foundation, ended its four-day week experiment in 2019, for example, claiming it was “too operationally complex to implement” permanently.

The challenges involved shouldn’t be underestimated, said McQuivey, particularly for organizations with more complicated workforce structures. 

“Very large companies would be cautioned against jumping into this too aggressively, because the larger the company, the more varied the departments and divisions are, and the more varied the work requirements,” said McQuivey.

Judging employees more on output and less on hours worked is also easier said than done.

“The first question is, ‘How are you going to measure whether someone is doing their job?’ That's harder than it looks,” he said. “There are a lot of people in software development where their job really can be measured by the amount of code that they manage in a week and projects that they deliver in a month. But even in those circumstances, there are still softer measures such as, ‘Is someone contributing to the training of their peers, the team spirit, the culture of the organization?’ and so on.”

Clarity on how performance is evaluated is critical so employees don’t wind up working more than intended just to please their boss, said McQuivey. “If you advertise a four-day workweek and you end up delivering a four-and-a-half-day workweek, that’s only going to undermine work culture and relationships,” he said.

What comes next?

Despite the challenges, four-day week initiatives appear to be on the upswing. Nonprofit organization 4 Day Week Global has coordinated several pilot schemes globally, with 30 companies in the UK recently committing to trials. Similar initiatives have been run in the US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia.

Governments have also taken note; Ireland, Scotland, and Spain all have committed to provide support for companies to experiment with a four-day week.

In the US, Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA) proposed a bill last year that would see the equivalent of a four-day week implemented for all workers by reducing the standard workweek to 32 hours, another sign of potential mainstream acceptance.

Lordan thinks a four-day week is likely, at least for those in roles suited to flexible schedules. But she expects a transition phase could continue for some time. Just as some workers will gravitate to companies that offer hybrid remote work, some employers will cater to employees that prioritize well-being and work-life balance over increased pay. That’s a growing trend, she said, particularly among younger workers. Other people may choose organizations where they have less autonomy but better pay.

McQuivey said that, anecdotally at least, there’s increased interest in a four-day week among Forrester’s business clients. But other future-of-work topics, such as adapting to hybrid work — a key challenge for many — are higher up the list of business priorities.

“We’re not seeing people come to us specifically to say, ‘We’re ready to consider [a four-day week] and we want to know how to do how to go about it.’ It’s on a list of things that companies are considering,” he said.

Smaller firms such as software companies with specialized workforces (and a small number of roles) may be best-suited for a four-day week at first, said McQuivey.

The spotlight will be on early adopters to see how they fare, with successful long-term initiatives likely building momentum for a wider uptake.

“The question is, do those companies do it effectively enough that it becomes an advantage for them?” said McQuivey.


Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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