Four-day workweek pilot shows wide support for a 32-hour week

A multinational test of how a four-day workweek affects employees — and company productivity and profits — is halfway done in the UK, and more than eight in 10 companies don't want it to stop.

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The largest multinational four-day workweek experiment to date has reached the midway point in the UK, and feedback from participating organizations indicates most hope to retain a 32-hour workweek after their pilot ends.

The experiment is being run by the 4 Day Week Global coalition in collaboration with researchers at Cambridge University, Boston College, and the University of Oxford. With a few exceptions, most companies taking part in the project are smaller firms.

“The pandemic made all of us reevaluate the place of work in our lives, and it showed that we could adopt new ways of working faster than we ever thought possible,”  Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, program director for the 4-day workweek, said via email. “Many people don't want to go back to office life Monday through Friday, and a four-day [workweek] offers features that for some companies make it more attractive than flexible or fully remote work (though you can combine those with a four-day week)."

The shorter workweek has proved popular with CEOs as well as employees, Pang said.

"The four-day week trial so far has been extremely successful for us,” said Claire Daniels, CEO at Trio Media, one of the 70 companies participating in the pilot project. "Productivity has remained high, with an increase in wellness for the team, along with our business performing 44% better financially."

For some companies, the workweek shift has meant throwing out old norms and embracing new ones.

“It wasn't a walk in the park at the start, but no major change ever is, and we were well briefed and prepared by the 4 Day Week Global team,” said Nicci Russell, managing director of Waterwise, which now shuts down on Fridays. "We have all had to work at it — some weeks are easier than others and things like annual leave can make it harder to fit everything in — but we're much more settled with it now overall.... We certainly all love the extra day out of the office and do come back refreshed. It's been great for our wellbeing and we're definitely more productive already.”

Joe O’Connor, CEO of 4-Day workweek Global, said most companies have had a “fairly smooth transition” to a four-day week. For others, there are some “understandable hurdles, especially among those [with] comparatively fixed or inflexible practices, systems, or cultures [that] date back well into the last century.

“A lot of businesses have more flexibility and nimbleness among their people and teams that leaders often know at the outset — there is friction for others, and this can be based on a variety of factors, many of which can be addressed or substantially improved in the pilot itself,” he said.

One surprise for most participating organizations was the support from partners and clients, "or, at worst, [they] take the attitude, 'So long as the work gets done, who cares how long it takes?'" Pang said.  "In conversations with about 300 companies, I’ve heard exactly two stories of clients or prospects not working with companies after they moved to a four-day week. Even to me, a fierce advocate of the four-day week, that’s remarkable."

The study involves 3,300 workers in the UK and another 2,000 who are located in about a half dozen countries. Compensation for employees remains the same as when they worked five days; they're simply expected to complete their work in four days.

The changes companies have had to make include shorter meetings, monotasking rather than multitasking, better communications, and sharing responsibility for clients across a week, according to Pang.

"There’s also a lot of muscle memory to fight against: the belief that your hours are a direct measure of your professionalism, worth to the company, or passion for your job, are ground into us from an early age, and take time to unlearn," he said.

In addition to improved worker wellbeing and productivity, 63% of businesses have found it easier to attract and retain talent, Pang said. “The average knowledge worker loses something like two to three hours of time every day to pointless meetings, interruptions, and technology-enabled distractions. So, if you can just get a handle on those, you're a long way to making the four-day week work,” he said.

“Add in efficiencies that come from using technology more mindfully, or designing the workday to give everyone meeting-free time or periods for deep work, and productivity [was] equal or exceeded that of companies working five-day weeks.”

Most organizations in the pilot include all of their employees, said Juliet Schor, a professor of sociology at Boston College and one of the study’s administrators. “There are only a few that do a subset [of employees],” she said. “But many of our companies are small. The ones that do a subset are…the biggest ones.”

For example, one company with about 1,000 employees included 400 of them in the pilot, Schor said, adding, “We are launching new programs every quarter in different regions. We've been starting a new one roughly every six months."

The six-month test began in January, with the first trial taking place in Ireland and including four US-based companies. From there, the pilots expanded in April to the United States and Canada, in June to the United Kingdom, and then to Australia and New Zealand. A second US/Canada pilot is set to begin in October.

"We’re just beginning to talk to companies for our EU and South African trials, so too early to tell how large those will be," Pang said.

A survey of the UK organizations in the pilot found that:

  • 88% see the four-day week as working "well" for their business at this stage.
  • 46% said business productivity remained the same, 34% said it "improved slightly," and 15% said it "improved significantly."
  • 86% said at this point, they are "extremely likely" and or "likely" to consider retaining a four-day week after the trial ends.

When asked how smooth the transition has been (with 5 being extremely smooth and 1 being extremely challenging), 29% selected 5, 49% chose 4 and 20% pegged the transition at 3.

The 4-Day Week pilot is not the first of its kind. In 2019, the US-based fast food chain Shake Shack ran a trial for its Las Vegas-based locations. Shake Shack CEO Randy Garutti, said during an earnings call that the pilot’s results were “promising” and expanded it to restaurant managers. The fast food chain suspended the test in September 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

More companies have experimented with four-day weeks during the past two years, according to Pang. In his "Shorter," Pang discusses 100 companies around the world that moved to a four-day week. “We have more than that in our current trials, and many others are doing it themselves,” he said.

Amy Loomis, a research vice president with IDC’s Future of Work practice, said researchers are seeing momentum outside the US for a four-day workweek. “It may need to originate there and provide significant enough results to [achieve] broader global adoption,” Loomis said. “I think culturally that is a harder sell in North America and Asia Pacific.” 

She called the discussion around how many actual hours are worked in a week a “red herring” or a throwback to the industrial era’s 9-to-5, five-day-a-week schedule, which was used to measure employee productivity.

“Our research suggests that the move to outcomes-based measurements of productivity is growing and as such, use of an hourly [measurement] is not in keeping with the discussion of outcomes,” Loomis said. “It’s by no means easy to get a whole business ecosystem to change standards — either regionally or around the globe.”

As analytics become more sophisticated, it is possible to look at other metrics to measure productivity, such as “teaming” — how much productivity is achieved by a team of employees in a set period — or agile metrics such as customer satisfaction scores, Loomis said.

Another factor is company size. Because most of those participating in the current experiment are small, their founders or CEOs are typically driving participation, according to Pang.

Companies are also more willing to participate in the experiment now than before the pandemic. “Companies were often reticent to talk publicly about their trials, but now they issue press releases, and the CEO posts about it on LinkedIn,” Pang said. “This shows how quickly popular perceptions about the four-day week have shifted, from being a slightly weird and definitely a risky thing, to a flex [strategy] that shows you care about your employees.”

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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