Can a four-day workweek be an integral part of the future of work? As organizations around the world explore new ways of working, the four-day workweek has returned in popularity. In fact, a new Icelandic study made global news after researchers reported that a compressed four-day workweek did not impact employee productivity and, in some cases, even increased productivity. Since then, Spain and Japan have conducted similar trials that are still ongoing. On top of this, Congress recently introduced legislation that would make compressed workweeks the norm in America. With these recent developments, there has been renewed interest (and disagreement) around the idea of a four-day workweek.
So what exactly is a four-day workweek? According to Change Recruitment Group, the “four day work week isn’t a compressed work schedule, but rather reduced hours,” meaning that employees would work around 28 hours over four days and have a three-day weekend. However, Spica states that the “most common type of compressed schedule is a four-day workweek in which employees work full-time hours in four 10-hour days.” For this article, we will be using “four-day workweek,” “shortened workweek,” and “compressed workweek” interchangeably. Regardless of which term you choose, many employees are excited about the prospect of a four-day workweek.
However, despite this hype and the promising results thus far, organizations and employees should approach the idea of a four-day workweek carefully and with intention. Many articles that talk about the benefits of a compressed workweek do not acknowledge the possible disadvantages and shortcomings. In addition, the majority of responses to Iceland’s study have glossed over some important details. In this article, we’ll take a look at what’s happened so far regarding the shortened workweek. We’ll also share four things to consider when deciding whether or not a compressed workweek is right for your company.
The history of the four-day workweek
Iceland reignited a global discussion after they produced successful results from their study of the four-day workweek. For this study, Iceland held a pair of trials that found that working fewer weekly hours with no pay reduction led to increased employee well-being and improved work-life balance without impacting productivity. It’s important to note that the study covered a small sample size of the Icelandic workforce, which is only about 1% of Iceland's working population. Since making these findings, 86% of Iceland’s workforce currently either work shorter weeks or have the right to ask to do so.
Today’s standard 40-hour workweek has been widely accepted since it was enacted into law in 1940. Though we can trace its roots back to the Industrial Revolution, it wasn’t until 1926 that Henry Ford popularized the concept after finding that working more hours increased productivity slightly over a shorter period of time.
Yet, the idea of a four-day workweek isn’t a new concept for the United States either. In 1933 during the Great Depression, Congress nearly passed legislation to implement a 30-hour workweek as an alternative to unemployment. However, by the time the Depression ended, working hours increased to an average of around 40 hours, weakening the movement for a shorter workweek.
Disadvantages of the four-day workweek
While the idea of a four-day workweek may seem enticing, many companies who have tried it are seeing mixed results. Possible disadvantages include, but are not limited to:
Longer hours. Even though the four-day workweek generally doesn’t aim to compress a 40-hour workweek into four days, it can be challenging for employees to scale back and get everything done in this shorter timeframe. As a result, many work longer days.
High cost to implement. Arguably, this is the biggest drawback of the four-day week for most organizations, as many employees may be unable to meet work requirements. For example, Sweden implemented six-hour workdays with no pay reduction under a five-day structure for two years. Despite an increase in productivity and employee satisfaction, it was not economically sustainable.
Not all industries or countries can participate equally. While the four-day workweek is ideal for some industries, others require 24/7 presence or scheduling, such as customer service. Similarly, not all countries define the weekend as Saturday and Sunday. For instance, the United Arab Emirates considers the weekend as Friday and Saturday.
Detrimental impact on teams and projects. As noted above, not every country or industry can participate equally in the four-day workweek. As such, the four-day workweek could negatively impact cross-functional collaboration - which has become a must in today’s increasingly distributed world of work.
Moreover, the pandemic has stretched organizational resources thin and exacerbated the stress of many employees. Before we stop coming into work on Friday, we need to fully understand the idea of a shortened workweek and ensure that employee wellbeing is at the forefront of any new initiative. While having a shortened work week with no pay reduction sounds great in theory, in reality, we will mostly see either 40-hour workweeks packed into four days or 32-hour workweeks with cuts in pay as a part-time workload over four days.
Four-day workweeks work - but only sometimes
Most companies that have implemented a four-day workweek saw mixed results after implementation. In 2019, Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand estate planning advisory firm with about 240 employees, made global news after conducting a four-day workweek trial that seemed to result in increased productivity. The two-month experiment was so successful that the firm implemented the policy permanently.
While Perpetual Guardian’s experiment was successful, not all companies have experienced similarly positive results from the same trials. In 2019, Digital Enabler - a 16-person German company that develops websites, apps, and e-commerce platforms - implemented a shortened workweek. It wasn’t without its challenges, as employees felt pressured to get the same amount of work done in a shorter period. Digital Enabler’s CEO, Lasse Rheingans, discouraged social media use and idle chitchat during work to make up for the lost time, a policy that made employees feel socially isolated.
Outside of the private sector, the state of Utah decided in 2011 to return to the traditional five-day workweek after years of working four 10-hour days. Until this policy reversal, state offices were closed on Friday - something many citizens and businesses reported to be an inconvenience. In addition, state legislators were skeptical of the shortened workweek’s cost-effectiveness. As with all large-scale changes, the success of a four-day workweek depends on planning, implementation, and maintenance from people leaders.
4 things to consider before implementing a shortened workweek
While a four-day workweek certainly has benefits, it may not work for every individual or organization. When deciding whether it makes sense to implement a shortened workweek, it’s essential to consider your company’s culture and bandwidth. Doing so will ensure that your policy is both effective and intentional. With that in mind, here are four things to keep in mind when implementing a shortened workweek.
1.) There is no one-size-fits-all approach
Having a four-day workweek may benefit some of your employees, but every employee has different needs and schedules. For instance, implementing a compressed workweek consisting of four 10-hour workdays would be a difficult adjustment for employees with children or caretaking responsibilities. Your organization should also consider employee wellbeing to ensure that your employees don’t feel more stressed as they try to get their work done in a shorter amount of time.
2.) Set clear expectations with your team
Even though some employees can be very productive when working a four-day workweek, it’s essential to set clear expectations and communicate transparently with your team. Unless it’s a serious emergency, sending out work-related emails on your employees’ time off will exacerbate their wellbeing and have them wondering whether they should be working. Having consistent discussions with your employees on what’s expected of them during the week will help your team be more productive. This open dialogue will also help determine which employees can cover for those not available on their respective days off.
3.) Consider your stakeholders
Compressed or shortened workweeks offer great flexibility for organizations and their employees. However, not every organization has the capacity or resources to accommodate a four-day workweek. The biggest challenge when creating a sustainable and flexible model for your organization is understanding your stakeholders. For instance, it can be detrimental to your organization if you find that your approach towards a compressed workweek is not the right fit, internally and externally.
4.) Build trust among your employees
Arguably, one of the most important factors when implementing a shorter workweek is a culture of trust and respectful boundaries. Empowering your employees to take control of their schedules is a crucial indicator of autonomy and trust. When considering a shortened workweek, talking it through with your employees can help you gauge whether they prefer to choose their own free day or have the same day off standardized across the organization. Trust, in turn, builds a sense of loyalty between employees and the organization, which can lead to higher morale and mitigate the risk of turnover, which is especially relevant during The Great Resignation.
What lies ahead
While the four-day workweek looks appealing and straightforward at first glance, it’s challenging to implement successfully, as not all organizations have the same needs. Initial results from recent trials and studies have been promising, but it will take time for the idea of the four-day workweek to take hold globally. The four-day workweek shouldn’t be considered a “magic bullet” for fixing burnout. Ultimately, employees want flexibility - not another parameter that they have to work with.
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