People & Culture
5 minute read

Can a 4-day week really work?

Hammock

If you do it the right way, a 4-day work week can help increase employee happiness, reduce stress, and increase the quality of work being done. It may be an idea whose time has come.

Back in May 2020, Buffer, the social media scheduling software, decided to introduce a 4-day work week to help their team manage the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. They assumed that it would cause a fall in productivity, but hoped that it would reduce employee stress during a time of unprecedented upheaval.

The results of the experiment were surprising. Not only did the reduced work week reduce stress levels and increase employee happiness, employees also reported no significant reduction in productivity. [1]

This isn’t just the latest Silicon Valley fad. Perpetual Guardian tried it out in 2018 - and reported a 20% increase in productivity. Microsoft Japan reported a a 23% lower electricity bill[2]. Consumer goods giant Unilever is trialing a 4-day week in their New Zealand branches[3]. Even the Spanish government is seriously considering introducing a reduced work week to help address the economic and employment crisis triggered by the pandemic[4].

However, if you’re tempted to try it out in your company, you’ll need to plan carefully to make sure that you reap the benefits of the scheme without creating any unnecessary headaches.

Here are a few questions to ask yourselves before you start:

1. What does a 4 day work week really mean?

If your workers would have to cram a full 40 hours into 4 days, then you’re probably not in the position to switch to a 4-day week. Long work days will be more likely to decrease the quality of the work being done, especially for those roles involving creative thought.

The idea should be to reduce working hours to 32 hours over 4 days - or possibly, spread the 32 hours over 5 short days instead. Which brings us to our next question:

2. Will employees take a whole day off, or spread the reduced workload over 5 days? 

Perpetual Guardian allowed employees to choose between taking a day off and spreading their reduced working hours across the whole week.

Microsoft Japan required all employees to take Fridays off, giving them a longer weekend and also saving the costs of opening the offices.

Both scenarios seem to have worked well, but both have their risks. If you allow employees to choose which day to take off, or to split their workload over 5 shorter days, then you can potentially increase the complexity of managing employee attendance, reduce collaboration (if teammates are working on different schedules) and lose out on cost savings (if offices are available at all hours and being consistently underutilised).

However, if you require all employees to take the same day off, you risk leaving customer queries unattended for too long.

A compromise might be to require all employees to work Monday-Thursday, and then assign a group of staff to work on Fridays on a rotating schedule.

3. Will you pay the same for 4 days? 

Buffer and Unilever continued to pay the same salaries for fewer working hours. After all, you’re supposed to be offering employees a perk, rather than a penalty. Bear in mind however that this may ruffle some feathers in the Finance department!

4. How will you help employees reduce their working hours?

It may be easier than you think to help employees work smarter, not longer. For example, German start-up Rheingans Digital Enabler was able to reduce their working days from 8 hours to 5 by simply increasing employee focus with good work habits[5].

Introducing silent meetings, switching from information meetings to status reports, or implementing Agile-style stand up meetings can all help you find hours of free time every week. Your employees will thank you!

5. What will you encourage employees to do with their day off?

Should employees think of the 5th day as a weekend? Should they prioritise family and friends? Or will you recommend (or even require) employees to use the day productively?

For example, the 5th day could be an ideal opportunity to encourage creative thought and innovation, without the pressure of deadlines and projects. Alternatively, you could invite employees to use their non-work day to work on their personal development. You may well find that employee retention, as well as performance, increased commensurately.

Implementing a 4-day work week will require careful thought beforehand - or you risk just piling on more pressure. However, the four-day work week may well be an idea whose time has finally come.

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Resources:

[1] https://buffer.com/resources/4-day-workweek-2020/

[2] https://www.npr.org/2019/11/04/776163853/microsoft-japan-says-4-day-workweek-boosted-workers-productivity-by-40?t=1614350360792

[3] https://fortune.com/2020/12/01/unilever-four-day-work-week/

[4] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-12-03/spain-government-studying-4-day-work-week-deputy-pm-tells-rtve

[5] https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-5-hour-workday-gets-put-to-the-test-11571876563