Is the 4-day work week changing the future of business?

Pop quiz. Which then US Vice President described the four-day work week as sitting, “in the not too distant future,” – no cheating. Have someone in mind? Here’s a hint: the idea was tossed around in the very distant past. As in not the last decade. Or the last two decades…or even the last THREE decades. The answer: Richard Nixon. He made the assertion back in 1956. Now, 66 years later, many are still wondering how much further we’ll need to reach into the future to achieve this long coveted work-life balance.

As it turns out, the 32-hour work week has been gaining momentum in recent years and some companies are finally making the transition and not turning back. Microsoft’s August 2019 trial of a four-day workweek in Japan resulted in a 40% rise in productivity. Since then, many other organizations have followed a similar path. Kickstarter and Bolt are among the U.S. companies that have adopted four-day weeks after successful pilot programs. 

“The point of the pilot really is to put some constraints on ourselves to challenge some of the norms that we have in how we work,” Kickstarter’s former CEO Aziz Hasan told Time.

“If we can put the right set of small constraints in front of the team, then we really need to allow them to be the ones who are giving us the feedback and understanding what’s working, what’s not working. Very big on my mind is that it’s going to work differently for different teams.”

Given the growth in interest, 4 Day Week Global began supporting companies and nonprofits who wanted to try a four-day, 32-hour work week with no pay reduction. In 2022, their efforts led to a large-scale independent research effort to understand the impacts of a four-day week and its results are transforming the future of business.

What is the 4 Day Week pilot program?

The pilot is a coordinated, six-month trial of a four-day week, with no loss in employee pay. This program is being coordinated by 4 Day Week Global in partnership with researchers at Cambridge University and Boston College, together with local researchers in each region.

On a scale of 0-10 (very negative to very positive) the companies’ average rating for the trial is a 9.0. Of the more than 900 workers across 33 businesses in the U.S. and Ireland tested, participating companies and employees alike are extremely pleased with performance and productivity, with almost all of them already committing or planning to continue onward with the reduced schedule. The results are a resounding reflection of support for the schedule shift, from both an employer and employee standpoint.

How did we get here? 

The concept of a four-day work week isn’t new. But the renewed sense of interest is undoubtedly tied to the lingering impact of the pandemic. The pandemic forced innovation and creativity across industries, but it also sparked an “always-on” culture that has led to excessive professional burnout. Researchers have long been interested in how working hours affect well-being and economic performance. Work time reduction and the four-day week more specifically, is considered a triple-dividend reform, with social, economic and climate benefits. Other countries have been more open to this concept for years, but unsurprisingly, the nearly century old five-day week standard is one work culture norm most U.S. employers are inexplicably married to. 

According to new research from Henley Business School, more than two-thirds of companies believe that offering a four-day week will be essential for future business success. 

In a Henley Business School white paper, 63% of UK businesses said that a four-day work week helps their organization attract and retain the right talent. Additionally, the switch was helping them to recruit and retain a wider employee diversity of employees. The study shows that nearly three quarters (72%) of UK workers agree it’s an attractive proposition and would be a firm driver when picking an employer, a particularly important factor for Gen Z. 

Changing U.S. attitudes towards shortened work weeks. 

BC Professor of Sociology Juliet Schor who wrote the 1992 book The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure is a part of the team leading the global data collection. She says this large scale experiment is prompting American corporations to reassess the long held belief-systems that equate hours in the office to productivity and success. 

“This would’ve been a difficult sell pre-COVID—it would’ve struck a lot of people as pie-in-the-sky, and not feasible for companies,” said Schor. “But the pandemic created such levels of stress and burnout, and led many employees to say, ‘I want to live my life differently,’ and this created more of a space for reimagining work—and, as part of that, the four-day week.”

Schor said the main reason employees have maintained productivity in the four-day week is that companies have decreased or cut activities with questionable or low value in the day-in, week-out operation. Meetings have been a major target in this reorganization, with personnel turning to phone calls, messaging apps, or other means of communication.

The other key to increased productivity, she noted, is that four-day week employees tend to use their third day off for doctor’s appointments or other personal errands that they would otherwise try to cram into a workday. 

What does the company sample of this study look like, would this model really work in any industry?

While the bulk of the participating companies are located within the U.S. and Ireland, a few characteristics of the group stand out. The largest group is from the administrative, IT, and telecoms sector, the second largest subset is professional services, with non-profits being the third group. Beyond that, the companies are distributed over a range of industries. One characteristic which stands out among the group is the large number of small companies. Adjust over half of the companies involved (52%) have ten or fewer employees. Over a third of the participating companies (36%) are fully remote, with no off-line headquarters. In terms of its gender composition, this is a largely balanced sample with 51% self-identifying as women, 48% as men, and 2% as other. 

More employees and more revenue. 

Revenue, perhaps the most global measure of performance – is of course a significant factor in considering the sustainability of a four-day work week model. Participating companies supplied data on revenue, average hours worked for all employees, total hours worked for all employees, resignations, new hires, and sick and personal days taken. On average, revenue rose 8.14% by the end of the trial. Company revenues increased more than a percentage point a month during the trial.

What’s perhaps even more striking, is that the trial took place during what has been popularly coined the “Great Resignation,” a period of time where workers have been quitting their jobs at record rates. However, in the four-day week companies, there was almost no change in the likelihood that an employee would quit between the comparison period and during the trial.

Growing revenue was accompanied by growth in the number of employees in participating companies. On average, among the 18 companies that supplied data on this metric, there was a 12.16% increase in the number of employees over the course of the trial. 

Perhaps most importantly, the four-day week did not lead to an increase in the intensity or pace of work, on average, as measured from baseline to endpoint.

Somewhat surprisingly, self-reported absenteeism did not decline during the trial, and another finding is that people did not use their day off to take on a second job.

So, how do employees feel about partaking in the four-day work week experience? 

Virtually all of the employees expressed an interest in maintaining a four-day work week. 

As far as personal wellness is considered, a wide range of well-being metrics showed significant improvement from the beginning to the end of the trial. More time spent away from desks meant stress, burnout, fatigue and work-family conflict all declined. Simultaneously, with extra time enabling employees to recharge, huge mental and physical improvements became clear. Physical and mental health, positive affect, work-family and work-life balance, and satisfaction across multiple domains of life increased. People report feeling they were more productive and doing a better job at work with the shift to a four-day week. Additionally, employees note enjoying exercising an increased level of schedule control.

Generic well-being outcomes also improved by the end of the trial. The average score of mental health (ranging from 1 to 5 with 5 being excellent), for example, increased from 3.03 at the beginning of the trial to 3.33 by the end. After just a few months, anxiety and negative affect also both fell substantially, and positive affect increased.

What are people doing with the extra “free time” back in their week?

Employees use their day off for hobbies, household work and personal grooming. 96.9% of employees expressed a deep desire to continue the schedule indefinitely. 

One reason for the physical and mental health improvements may be the changes in exercise, fatigue and sleep that employees experienced.

When asked to rank their physical health from 1-5 (poor to excellent) before the trial began, the average response was 3.17. The average response at the end of the trial jumped to 3.35, which strongly suggests that a four-day week has the potential to reduce costs associated with health care.

Employees are also more satisfied with other domains of life, including household finances, relationships, and time. Most notably, employees recorded an almost two point increase in satisfaction with time, from 5.39 before the trial to 7.38 after.

The open-ended commentary from participants tells a fuller story of their individual reflections. 

“It’s been a wonderful initiative,” one employee wrote. “I’m 59yo and have worked full time my whole life and worked hard. For years I have dreamt about one day being able to reduce my working week, but due to financial commitments I’ve been unable to. Working full time remains the case very much for the foreseeable future but at least it is 4 days a week!”

Another employee says they are, “Absolutely loving the 4 day work week. It took time to adjust, but months later, I am more productive and more satisfied with my job while working significantly less than I was prior to the trial.” 

And, while most respondents didn’t talk about pay, one did make it clear that they recognized the economic implications, stating, “The 4 day work week is equivalent to ~25% pay bump in my opinion.”

office workplace during a 4-day work week

Photo by Kate Sade

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