Remote and hybrid work options are becoming a must-have for many, but that’s not the only work trend making waves. Countries and companies around the world are experimenting with a four-day workweek, but even some of those who have embraced remote work are skeptical about the effectiveness of a shortened week. Here's what studies and trials around the world have found, why I think the four-day workweek is a challenge worth overcoming, and three steps companies can take to set themselves up for a successful workweek evolution.
A global exploration
European countries have been far ahead of the United States in exploring changes to the length of the workweek.
A study was conducted in Iceland with 2,500 workers in 2015 and 2017. This accounted for more than 1% of Iceland’s working population. This study brought workweeks down from 40 hours to 35 or 36 hours. The trial found benefits for both employees and companies. The shorter, four-day workweek led to lower stress and reduced risk of burnout without negatively impacting productivity. Ultimately Icelandic trade unions negotiated for a reduction in working hours. By 2021, 86% of Icelandic workers either had reduced workweeks or could request such a reduction.
A trial in Sweden had more mixed results. In 2015 Sweden tried six-hour workdays. Nurses in the trial were happier, but it came with a price. The hours the existing nurses were no longer working had to be covered by new hires. While some of the additional salaries were offset by lower health care costs and lower unemployment for their existing workforce, a local politician said it would be too expensive to do for an entire municipality.
The reduced workweek is not completely dead in Sweden. Toyota had already started using this schedule for its mechanics prior to the study and continues to use it.
Earlier this year, employees in Belgium won not only the right to a four-day workweek but also the right to ignore their bosses outside work hours. Belgian prime minister Alexander de Croo said the hope is to make the Belgian economy more dynamic with an aim to increase employment from 71% to 80% by 2030.
Many other countries are currently running or preparing for similar trials. In June, the UK began a six-month pilot program of a four-day workweek for some 3,300 employees. Affected UK Employees will receive 100% of their pay to work 80% as many hours, but must still complete the same amount of work as they were required to do during the standard five-day workweek. The trial is being run by 4 Day Week Global, a not-for-profit organization helping companies to experiment with four-day workweeks.
Programs similar to the one in the UK are planned for the US, Ireland, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. In Scotland, a government trial is set to start in 2023. The results of these trials in the coming years may be what ultimately drives companies and countries in one direction over another.
Not all adoptions of the reduced workweek are spurred by governments or organizations like 4 Day Week Global. Newsweek compiled a list of US companies embracing a four-day work week. Another site compiles companies around the world that offer a four-day workweek and links directly to job openings at these companies, appealing to job seekers who see the reduced workweek as a blessing and not a curse.
In 2019, Microsoft Japan piloted a program where employees worked four days for the same full paycheck. They saw a 40% boost in productivity and a 23% reduction in electricity costs. Yet, the program was only tested for a short time that summer before regular five-day workweeks returned.
Another company, Healthwise, saw revenues go beyond forecast and goals being met ahead of schedule. After experimenting with the reduced schedule in 2021, they made it permanent in February.
Out of the office, into stress
A major obstacle to the four-day workweek - heavy workloads - has been exacerbated during the pandemic. While workers have seen more flexibility in where they work since the pandemic began, they’ve also seen increases in the size of their workloads. In 2021, 67% of workers reported an increase in stress and burnout since the pandemic began. Also, Microsoft reported in their 2022 Work Trend Index that employees are doing more "after-hours" work and are in danger of digital overload. Will reducing their working hours decrease stress? Not without culture changes.
A study in New Zealand around the adoption of a four-day workweek found that employees experienced greater work intensity as well as increased pressure from management following the change. We also know that the more intense a person’s workload is, the more time they spend thinking about work outside working hours, potentially erasing any mental gains from a reduced workweek.
The success of certain four-day workweek trials has led to the assumption that the same (or more) work can be done in less time if the workweek is reduced. While this can happen, it’s not by magic. Microsoft Japan didn’t just tell workers to stay home on Fridays and expect the same work to be done. They implemented a number of guidelines to facilitate the reduced workweek.
One immediate timesaver they put into effect was to reduce the standard length of a meeting from 60 minutes to only 30 minutes. Furthermore, they capped meeting attendance at five attendees. They believed that many employees were being unnecessarily tied up in meetings. The trial was conducted prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and the problem has only worsened. In their 2022 Work Trend Index, Microsoft also reported a "252% increase in weekly time spent in meetings for the average Teams user since February 2020." Microsoft Japan had also encouraged the use of collaborative chat channels via Microsoft Teams in place of emails. Each of these strategies was identified as an opportunity to be more efficient.
That said, if workloads are already too great, no amount of organizational improvement will help. Some employers must face the reality that they’ve been getting more hours out of their workers than should be expected (while hoping employees stay in good spirits–and in their jobs). No company wants to reduce productivity, but in this employment market, employers can’t keep requiring employees to burn the candle at both ends if they want to retain them.
There are cases where a four-day workweek may not be feasible despite a company’s best efforts. "If you look at the companies that are pioneering the four-day week, tech is very much at the forefront," says Juliet Schor, an economist and sociology professor at Boston College.
For example, manufacturing plants are still struggling to catch up with supply chain shortages and would likely find it difficult to adopt the four-day workweek. That’s not to say it would be impossible.
The hardware giant Lowes is trying to create a better work/life balance for store employees by implementing the option of a four-day workweek. The previous system could lead to employees working as many as six days in a row before having a day off and having two consecutive days off was rare. With the new system, employees have the option of a four-day week, but the total number of hours worked in a week will remain the same.
Some HR professionals worry that reduced schedules can make it harder to connect. Healthwise gave all employees Fridays off. Having the same day off can improve scheduling conflicts, but there are still fewer hours available for meetings. This is where Microsoft Japan’s shorter meetings could be helpful.
One step at a time
So what should companies do? This is a new frontier and there is no easy answer, but to say the four-day work week is impossible or ineffective would be short-sighted. There are steps companies can take to improve efficiency and worker comfort before taking the plunge into the four-day workweek:
- Address excessive workloads
- Consider how much employee time is wasted in meetings, reading emails, and doing other archaic office tasks
- Create guidelines that will improve efficiency
Microsoft Japan identified where the fat could be trimmed in order to improve efficiency. Even if the workweek is not reduced, examining employee workload and workplace efficiency holds the potential to bring benefits for both employees and employers.
Like the 40-hour workweek, the four-day workweek will not become commonplace overnight. The pandemic forced many companies to adopt remote work practices, but there is no similar driver for reducing the workweek. This evolution will happen over time and employers addressing burnout is the first step in that evolution.
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