The pandemic ushered in a new era of workplace flexibility, sparking conversations about a four-day work week. Globally, work-life balance is now front and center in our discussions, and we are rethinking the traditional structure of a work week. In the U.S., the standard five-day work week dates back to the early 1900s, when unions advocated for a weekend and business owners concluded a shorter week could increase productivity.
“The pandemic has created a moment for businesses to take stock and consider more radical reconstructions of the workplace,” said Andrew Barnes, author of “The 4 Day Week” and co-founder of the nonprofit 4 Day Week Global. “It is a time for experimentation and a reevaluation of what it means to be productive.”
Barnes advocates that a four-day work week is better for people, business, and society. His organization has found that 63% of businesses found it easier to attract and retain talent with a four-day week. Furthermore, 78% of employees with four-day weeks are happier and less stressed. If your organization is exploring a four-day work week, here are some key considerations and resources.
The Benefits of a 4-Day Work Week
One of the biggest arguments for a four-day work week is that employees get an extra day back in their schedules. That’s time they can invest in themselves, their families, and their communities. Employees can rest, exercise, take care of appointments, enjoy time in nature, volunteer, pursue hobbies, and care for their loved ones — all without sacrificing pay or career advancement.
“Rise and grind” culture with 24/7 connectivity and ever-lengthening work days is not sustainable. Employees are more engaged with improved mental and physical health, take fewer sick days, and experience less burnout. Employees are also more likely to pursue skill building with extra free time and energy on their hands. This can translate to increased productivity, a more robust talent pool, and better retention rates for employers.
In pilot studies conducted by governments and businesses in countries such as Iceland, New Zealand, Spain, and Japan, workers reported a 25 to 40 % increase in productivity when they shifted to a four-day work week.
The world’s largest trial of a shorter work week in Iceland was dubbed an overwhelming success. Trials took place between 2015 and 2019, with workers paid the same amount for shorter hours. Researchers concluded that productivity remained the same or improved in most workplaces, including preschools, offices, social service providers, and hospitals.
According to researchers, 86% of Iceland’s workforce have either moved to shorter hours for the same pay, or they will gain the right to soon.
A Reduction in Environmental Impact
Shorter working hours can help lower energy consumption, carbon emissions, and commuting time. A report published by the 4 Day Week Campaign in the U.K. shows that shifting to a four-day work week could reduce the entire country’s carbon footprint by 21.3% per year — or the equivalent of taking nearly every car off the road.
The report also found evidence that people were more likely to spend their time outside work engaged in less carbon-intensive activities. This might include preparing their own meals and walking or cycling instead of driving.
A contributor to Forbes, Jack Kelly writes how seventeen percent of Americans drive fewer miles on the average weekend day than the average weekday. Introducing a third weekend day would reduce carbon emissions in the U.S. by 45 million metric tons — more than the total emissions of Oregon and Vermont combined.
An Opportunity to Redesign How You Work
In an article for TED, author Alex Soojung-Kim Pang describes how companies successfully shifted to a four-day work week. He notes they didn’t just lop a day off their calendar but instead meaningfully redesigned how they worked. This redesign included tightening their meetings, introducing “focus time” to concentrate on key tasks, and using technology more mindfully.
“Studies show that while technology has made knowledge work much more productive, office workers are wasting two to four hours a day thanks to outmoded processes, multitasking, overly-long meetings, and interruptions,” Soojung-Kim Pang writes. “Deal with those, and you go a long way towards making a four-day week possible.”
There are also options outside the four-day work week. Your organization could explore trying 4 to 5-hour work days, half days, and staggered, flexible schedules where employees come and go based on their lifestyle needs and your organization’s needs.
Are you taking a serious look into a four-day work week for your organization? The Society for Human Resource Management recommends asking yourself these six questions:
- Why are you considering changing the time table? It’s important to have goals, such as increasing productivity or retaining employees.
- How will you determine effectiveness? Set parameters for what a successful four-day work week would look like for your organization.
- Will you move to four 10-hour days, or four 8-hour days? Ten-hour days could become exhausting, but 8-hour days could make it challenging to complete work.
- Will you adopt the program for the whole staff? Keep in mind managers who oversee schedules, and create an equitable set-up that considers all employees.
- What will clients and customers think? Communication and planning are crucial so that clients and customers know how this schedule will impact them.
- Is it feasible for your industry? Industries such as manufacturing and hospitality require a certain number of workers to run smoothly. Look at how you can stagger schedules to cover hours.