A few years ago, the CEO of a Seattle-based design and marketing firm observed something curious at her company. At the beginning of the week, employees were pumped and put in a hard day’s work. However, by the end of the week, much of their energy had been drained and their productivity was way down.
This CEO came up with a simple solution: Instead of the typical workweek, which is an eight-hour shift five days a week, she offered workers the chance to work four 10-hour days, with the option of taking either Monday or Friday as a paid day off.
Her solution was very popular and produced very positive results. Companies benefited from a happier and more relaxed work force and productivity increased by 25%. And employees had more time to share with family and friends, to do errands, and saved costs and time commuting to and from work.
There was an additional benefit, too: Personnel was able to fill vacancies in just half the time that was needed in the past, despite the tight labor market. The four-day workweek has been tried and tested by dozens of companies in several countries, including Britain, New Zealand, Japan, and Germany, as well as in the U.S., and results have been consistently favorable. So by all measures, this was a win-win situation.
Lucie Greene, a trends expert at consultant J. Walter Thompson, explained there was a growing backlash against overwork. Here’s how she put it: “People are starting to take a step back from the 24-hour digital life we have now and realize the mental health concerns of being constantly connected to work,” she said.
Real Or Mirage?
All of these positive experiences raise the question: does the four-day workweek loom on the horizon for everyone? But they also raise an additional question: is a four-day workweek really as good as it sounds? The answers vary with the company, the employee, and the work involved.
“Certain industries don’t require as many working hours anymore,” explains Fast Company, “and the global trend – especially in Europe – leans toward a four-day workweek.”
According to a UK study done in 2017 by Vouchercloud, the average employee spends just two hours and 53 minutes each day working productively.
A separate study, this one done in 2018 by the Workforce Institute at Kronos, came to a similar conclusion. It found that more than half of full-time workers thought that they could do their job in five hours a day as long as they could work without being interrupted – and this study polled 3,000 employees in eight different countries.
Additional studies, also done on many hundreds of employees, found that many felt the four-day workweek would better help them balance their work and personal lives, reduce stress by everyone involved, and increase overall work satisfaction.
According to Fast Company, the extra free day encouraged employees to become more productive. “This motivation inspired workers to devise better work habits and to waste less of their work time,” said the professor who devised this study. Also, employees became more creative, had improved attendance, had a better on-time record, and did not leave early or take long breaks.
....But There’s a Downside, Too
So if the four-day workweek is the best thing since apple pie, why isn’t every company jumping on the bandwagon? The answer is very simple: not every job can be compressed into just four days. And even when they can, not every company wants to take the risk of trying to make it work.
And there is a risk. The most obvious one is that employees will be unable to complete their work requirements on time. A two-year study in Sweden that compressed a four-day 40-hour week to 30 hours over five days found increased worker satisfaction; however, the costs were unacceptably high and the trial had to be discontinued – an outcome that must have been both disappointing and demoralizing for employees as well as the company.
Moreover, not all jobs and industries lend themselves to being completed in just four days. For example, jobs that are connected to Wall Street, real estate, information, food, and of course healthcare are among those that cannot be condensed, and millions of jobs fit into these categories.
Back in 1930, with the Great Depression increasing in intensity, John Maynard Keynes predicted that “within 100 years we’d all have a 15-hour workweek.” In addition to being a highly respected economist, Keynes also was a visionary, and he understood that the rise of industrialization would continue. In his opinion, once a worker earned enough money to pay for necessities, he or she would prefer to spend more time at home or on leisure activities, which would make a two- or three-day workweek possible.
In 1956, then-Vice President Richard Nixon, who also understood trends, predicted that “a four-day workweek was coming in the not-too-distant future.”
More recently, business guru Richard Branson called for a shorter workweek, writing in a blog that “by working more efficiently there is no reason why people can’t work fewer hours and be equally – if not more – effective... That’s going to be a difficult balancing act to get right, but it can be done.”
These predictions have not materialized – yet – but in the coming years the four-day workweek will likely become more mainstream. Advances in automation are making employees much more productive, the increasing cost and stress of commuting to and from work make this more appealing, and with so many pressures generated by a five-day workweek, many employees would welcome that extra day off every week.
What we’ve seen so far are just the coming attractions of the four-day workweek. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed reading about them because there’s a good chance these changes will be coming to a workplace near you sooner than you think.