What’s the Deal with Shorter Work Weeks?

person crossing out date on calendar

Freeing up 8 hours a week may (or may not) be the answer

“Working five days, 40 hours a week is so early 2000s,” they say. By “they” I mean several articles all over the web about tech companies in the United States and Europe toying with the idea of implementing four-day work weeks in an attempt to increase productivity and re-evaluate the work-life balance of employees.

This topic is nothing new, but since the pandemic the conversation of expanding the weekend has been injected with new life, as people began to place greater priority on their health and general well-being.

Destinations around the globe have stated their intent to put the shorter work week into practice; the United Kingdom is already on it. On June 6, the U.K. launched the largest four-day work week pilot program ever, consisting of 70 companies and more than 3,000 employees across various workplaces, to test how well companies can operate at scale when putting it into practice. The trial will last for six months.

Similar six-month trials are being run in New Zealand, Australia and Asia-Pacific; in the United States, Ireland, Spain and Canada, tests are to begin this fall.

Why the Four-day Work Week Is Back

Talk of the four-day work week first found its way into the conversation in the early 20th century, even before the five-day work week was even the standard. Workers of the Ford Motor Company had their work weeks shortened from six days to five days at the behest of the then-progressive Henry Ford. When calls were made by employees to shorten it again from five days to four, their calls went unheard.

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Fast forward to the early 21st century and the relationship between employer and employee is vastly different than the days of Ford employees and their assembly lines. What employees want from the companies they work for has changed, and the power has shifted, albeit slightly.

For example, the request for work-life balance, something unheard of until relatively recently, is something 60% of employees now expect from employers, according to a study by JLL focusing on employee well-being. Seventy-five percent of these employees also say they’re struggling to find the time or energy to incorporate habits conducive to their physical health and well-being. Perhaps this is where the extra 24 hours comes into play.

What Are the Places That Have Done It Saying?

The results of practicing the four-day work week vary. While some workplaces have been able to introduce the shortened week and keep it going with much success, others brought it into the workplace and received the exact opposite response.

A study conducted in Iceland from 2015 to 2019 found that working shorter working hours were strongly correlated to greater productivity. The five-year study, which included 2,500 workers from workplaces such as preschools, offices and hospitals, was met with success. Employees reported feeling less stressed and at risk of burning out and 86% of Iceland companies now have the right to implement the shortened workweek if they choose.

In the summer of 2019, Microsoft trialed a four-day workweek in Japan and the company reported productivity, measured by sales per employee, rose by nearly 40%.

Other companies such as Alter Agents, a market research consultancy firm in Los Angeles, found trouble adjusting to a 32-hour work week. Alter Agents’ 10-week experiment didn’t work for several specific reasons: everyone didn’t have the same day off, some employees continued to work on their off day and a lack of communication among employees.

Generational Sentiment Varies

Much like the results companies reported when running four-hour work weeks, employees’ feelings about the concept are not unanimous. In a study of more than 1,000 people, technology platform company Qualtrics found that 92% of employees would support their employer introducing a four-day work week, for reasons including an improved work-life balance and greater productivity. However, concerns were voiced by 55% of respondents about how reduced hours may impact customer experience.

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While most were in favor of implementing a four-day work week, sentiment about how this would affect sales was split down middle, with 46% saying a four-day work week would have a negative impact on sales and revenue, while 47% believe it would have no impact.

This article appears in the October 2022 issue. You can subscribe to the magazine here.

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