- Our Team
March 21, 2023
It is hardly surprising that employees would prefer to work 28 hours a week instead of 40. The latest argument for implementing a four-day week does not call for compressing the time between Monday and Thursday (or any other combination of days) into four equal segments. It would mean a reduction in total hours, say, 28 hours over four days, with a three-day weekend.
The quid pro quo for the time reduction is a commitment to maintain 100% productivity. One proposed method for preserving output levels is to interweave or layer short bursts of work with intervals of leisure to reinvigorate employees. The pause that refreshes could be time spent on personal pursuits such as hobbies, exercise or just doing personal chores.
Pilots and surveys
Can the circle be squared? Ongoing pilot projects try to demonstrate that fewer hours do result in improved quality of work productivity and more contented workforces.
A pilot study in Iceland conducted from 2015 to 2019 followed 2,500 public service workers in two trials. Results found no reduction in productivity. A Swedish study of nurses carried out between 2015 and 2017 indicated fewer sick hours and improved well-being among the nursing staff but did not provide any cost benefits. A new project involving 600 workers has been launched in the U.K. across 70 companies. Further results are pending from trials conducted in Spain and Scotland in 2022.
Surveys have also asked U.S. employees about their attitudes and expectations regarding their workplaces. Research from Qualtrics released in February 2022 found that an overwhelming majority, 92%, favored a four-day workweek, citing productivity, company loyalty and mental health benefits. While 74% thought they could deliver the same amount of work in the four-day scenario, 72% believed they would need longer hours per workday to do so. Notably, nearly four out of 10 employees (37%) were even willing to take a 5% pay cut in exchange for recurring three-day weekends.
The history of the four-day workweek
Back in 1890, the U.S. government estimated that workers in the manufacturing sector put in 100 hours per week. Weekends off were introduced in 1908. By the middle of the 20th century, that slog was reduced to 40 hours — the exact amount that Henry Ford had found most efficient after extensive testing. In 1940, after much lobbying from labor unions, the Fair Labor Standards Act became the cornerstone law for the rest of the century.
Proponents advocating fewer work hours most notably included economist John Maynard Keynes. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in fact, supported a bill in 1933 to reduce the workweek. More recently, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development assessed that from 2010 to 2020, employees on average worked 1,767 hours a year, but these figures have been upended by COVID-19. During the pandemic, 25% of work-from-homers worked 60 hours per week remotely, with the average employee tacking on an additional 2.5 hours a day.
Making the case
It is easy to understand why workers desire more leisure time. A happy workforce clearly means less turnover and serves as a perk for attracting talent. With a more resilient business model, firms can save on the costs of recruiting and onboarding. Staff in less stressful and healthier office environments have fewer absences and take fewer days off.
On the social front, working mothers in particular gain from the flexibility of shorter work hours, as it allows them to ease the stress of juggling child care responsibilities. Green cheerleaders also note sustainability benefits: Fewer office days add up to less commuting and a smaller carbon footprint.
On the other hand, a shortened workweek poses challenges for customer management. Customers want immediate support and prefer a human interaction. Among Qualtrics survey respondents, 55% noted customer frustrations, with 42% concerned about sales and revenues. To bridge the gap, firms may need to increase the number of people who work overtime, which adds financial pressures.
If your company does decide to embark on a four-day workweek, look out for these challenges as your business responds to the new pace:
If companies have any real hope of achieving an effective four-day workweek, they will need enhanced coordination, with all participants pulling in the same direction.
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