The 4-Day Workweek: Is It Worth It?
The four-day workweek. It’s a reality for some, an ideal to others.
In theory, the four-day workweek is 32 work hours, with the same pay, benefits and productivity. Some proponents opt for four 10-hour days, others prefer 32-hour weeks at 80% pay.
Maryland recently proposed a bill to switch to the four-day working week which, if passed, will begin as a pilot program in July 2023. The bill also outlines a state tax credit for private businesses that move 30 or more employees to a 4-day, 32-hour schedule.
California saw a similar bill, which would have required businesses to pay overtime to employees with more than 32 work hours per week. That bill was recently shelved, however, which could hint at a potential outcome in Maryland.
Hundreds of companies in the U.S. and abroad currently use a four-day workweek — including well-known brands like Kickstarter, 37signals (owner of Basecamp) and Buffer. And organizations like 4 Day Week Global and the 4 Day Week Campaign, along with researchers, are aiming to grow that number with the four-day week movement.
The Trial of the 4-Day Workweek
The 4 Day Week Campaign is the UK’s national campaign for a four-day workweek. They’re working with Autonomy, 4 Day Week Global and researchers at Cambridge University, Oxford University and Boston College to roll out the 4-day week pilot programs across the UK. These pilot programs run alongside similar pilots in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and Israel.
This pilot is the biggest ever trial of a four-day week in the world, according to 4 Day Week Campaign, representing more than 3,300 workers across more than 30 sectors in the UK alone who receive 100% of their pay for 80% of the time.
In the US and Ireland, the pilot, spearheaded by 4 Day Week Global, Boston College, University College Dublin and Cambridge University, included more than 900 employees at 33 companies.
The companies that participated in the pilot in the US and Ireland have called it a success — meeting expectations regarding performance, productivity and overall experience. Of the 27 organizations that have offered feedback on the trial, none said they had plans to go back to a five-day week schedule. And employees felt similarly, with around 97% wanting to stick to the four-day schedule.
The 4-Day Week in Action
Beyond these coordinated pilot programs, some companies have already implemented four-day weeks on a trial or permanent basis. Software company 37Signals has a 32-hour work week from May 1 through Aug. 31, fully paid.
“We started offering this benefit in 2010 to give our employees a break,” said Elaine Richards, 37Signals' COO. “During the summer months, people take vacations, kids are out of school, and people want to go outside. Having a little extra time away from work to enjoy those things restores our employees.”
Buffer, a social management platform, also offers a four-day working schedule — at 100% pay. “We switched to the four-day workweek during the early months of COVID-19, when we saw increased stress throughout our global team, and especially on the parents in our team,” said Hailley Griffis, head of communications and content at Buffer.
Other US-based companies with four-day weeks include Kickstarter, Bit.io, DNSFilter and thredUp, among many more.
“The four-day week, with no loss of pay would drastically change society and our futures for the better,” said Mariam Salman, campaign officer at 4 Day Week Campaign. “It’s good for business and productivity, but its impact goes far beyond the workplace.”
Despite praise for the four-day week, some organizations are reluctant — or unwilling — to make the switch. What’s stopping them from fully embracing the four-day workweek?
Related Article: What We Learned from 4-Day Work Week Experiments Around the World
The Advantages of the 4-Day Workweek
Change can be difficult when you’re used to a certain way of working, Salman said.
“The 9-5, five-day working week has become a part of our culture, even though we have increasing evidence to suggest that we are long overdue an update,” she said.
Companies that have adopted — or at least piloted — the four-day workweek, however, claim it comes with enough benefits to make it worthwhile.
Increased Efficiency, Higher Quality Work
“Switching to a four-day workweek made us question old processes and make sure we were being as efficient as possible across all of Buffer,” said Griffis. That meant eliminating some meetings, moving to asynchronous communication and looking for other ways team members could check in with each other.
In Buffer’s research, 91% of the team said they were happier and more productive working four days a week. And 84% of the team could get all of their work done in the new timeframe.
Richards said business at 37signals slows down intentionally during their shift to four-day weeks. But it came with an unexpected result.
“We don't try to fit 40 hours into a 32-hour week. Instead, we cut projects, cut scope and ruthlessly prioritize. A benefit we didn't anticipate was higher quality work coming out of 4-day workweeks due to the fact that we're forced to focus on the most important work, and let the rest go,” she said.
Less Stress, More Engagement
Employees see some of the biggest benefits from working four days a week.
“If you can give team members a significant amount of their time back, they can spend that time with their families, volunteering, resting or a creative practice," said Kate Bernyk, senior director of communications at Kickstarter.
The results of the US and Ireland trials found that employees with four-day schedules saw declining levels of stress, burnout, fatigue and work-family conflict. Physical and mental health, work-life balance and job satisfaction, on the other hand, all increased.
Research from Henley Business School found that 78% of employers who implemented a four-day week said their employees were less stressed at work, and 75% say their employees are happier.
Addressing Gender Pay Gaps
Males have traditionally been the “breadwinners," while women took up unpaid domestic labor, said Salman. Yet, despite changes to women’s participation in the labor market and gender norms around work, women are still unequally responsible for caring responsibilities.
“Moving everyone to a four-day week with no loss of pay would mean that as both men and women are working less, there would be a more equal share of paid and unpaid work such as childcare, housework and caring responsibilities,” Salman said. “Shorter working hours have been associated with a reduction in the gender pay gap, as women oftentimes have to take work that they are overqualified for and work that is poorly paid to accommodate for caregiving responsibilities.”
Karien van Gennip, minister of social affairs and employment of the Netherlands, echoed these thoughts at the 2023 World Economic Forum in Davos.
“We have really a puzzle in the labor market today,” she said. “And if you look in the Netherlands, at least, we have a lot of people working five days a week — men, presumably — and a lot of women working two or three days a week.”
Four working days, then, would be good for everybody. “Because that would actually mean that women would step up, become more financially independent,” van Gennip said. And men, who take more care of smaller children, elder parents in formal care, that’s now on the majority on the shoulders on women.”
Fighting Climate Change
A shorter working week is also a powerful tool to help fight climate change, Salman said.
“Shifting to a four-day, 32-hour working week with no loss of pay would shrink the UK’s carbon footprint by 127 million tonnes per year,” she said. “This represents a reduction of 21.3% — more than the entire carbon footprint of Switzerland and equivalent to taking effectively all of the UK’s private cars off the road.”
That same study from Henley Business School found that, of employees on the four-day schedule, 73% drive their cars less. And, if all organizations were to introduce a four-day working week, it would decrease commuting by more than 691 million miles per week.
On top of that, Mariam said, “an extra day off gives people the opportunity to be more engaged citizens and fight for the future that they want, allowing for a healthy democracy to prosper.”
In fact, 36% of employees working four days a week say they’re likely or very likely to spend their extra time volunteering.
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Some employees (13%) who’ve already experienced this schedule, according to 4 Day Week Global’s research, said no amount of money could make them go back to a five-day schedule. Another 42% said they’d require up to 50% more pay to switch back.
“We've seen our employee attrition rates go down,” said Bernyk, “which is a real benefit, as losing a good person on a team often sets that team back several months. We've also found that the four-day workweek has had a positive impact on our ability to hire faster and hire great people.”
Other companies within the 4-Day Week US and Ireland trials also saw increases in hiring along with reductions in absenteeism and resignations.
Related Article: 5 Ways to Increase Employee Retention
Challenges of the Four-Day Workweek
Working four days a week comes with some unmistakable benefits. Yet, many companies are unwilling or unable to take make the switch — perhaps because it’s not the right solution for every organization.
Higher Labor Costs, Decreased Wages
If you go to the four-day workweek, you have to be serious about what that means for pay per hour, said van Gennip.
“That is also a difficult discussion, of course, because it actually means you have to increase wages to make sure that people can still make their rent and pay their bills.” The result is higher labor costs — something many businesses cringe.
The alternative is a decrease in wages, which could have the opposite effect on employee morale. Some organizations offering a 32-hour workweek with 80% pay include the UK Civil Service, Usability Hub, Cancer Research UK, CloseCRM, among others.
While this is one workaround to offering a 32-hour schedule without increasing costs, it could burden employees financially and impact employee morale. Plus, it does not constitute the true four-day workweek that campaigners hope to achieve through legislation.
Not A One-Size-Fits-All Solution
This is very much a discussion for the upper class, said van Gennip.
“Because if you look at many of the jobs that are service jobs, they’re still in-person service jobs.” She pointed to healthcare as an example. “It’s much more difficult to go to those flexibility hours.”
For some industries or jobs, a four-day workweek is just not possible. And for those who work for minimum wage and need those extra hours, it may not be desirable. It might not even be feasible for the average company swamped with a backload of work, not enough employees or strict deadlines.
Richards said they’ve had to postpone or temporarily cancel four-day weeks during the summer once or twice. “It's not fun to make that decision, but when we are preparing to launch a new product or experiencing a critical outage, we need to balance our employee benefits with the needs of our customers,” she said. “We ask staff to bank and float their summer hours days for use later in the year in those circumstances.”
A Barrier to Customer Experience
Most companies care about the employee experience. But something they might prioritize a little more: customer experience. Of businesses who haven’t switched to a four-day week, 75% say not being available to customers is the biggest barrier, according to Henley Business School.
Many businesses today rely on 24/7 customer-business relationships. They want customer service agents and other staff available to source information, answer questions and keep customers satisfied. But switching to a new schedule could complicate things.
Some employers may not feel the benefits are substantial enough to warrant implementing a four-day week. Or they might find the benefits unnecessary.
Not a Solution to Employee Overload
Anita Brearton, founder and CMO of CabinetM, wrote for Reworked that she’s interested in the idea of a four-day working week, having experienced one herself while in college, but she’s not sure if it would work today.
Back then, before the internet and PCs, she said people were productive at their desks but tended to take numerous and extended breaks. But the culture shifted, and it became normal to work five, 10-hour days in an average workweek. “Are we as companies and managers setting that as an expectation?” she wrote.
“What I do know is that for many, job responsibilities, priorities, deadlines and management styles have, by default, created a situation where employees feel forced to work long hours and feel pressured to always be on call,” Brearton wrote.
And making the switch to four-hour days won’t necessarily reduce that pressure.
Pilot programs in the US and Ireland showed inconclusive results regarding workload intensity during four-day weeks. Around 37% of employees said workload intensity increased due to higher deadlines and higher work speeds, while 35% said workload intensity decreased.
Related Article: Creating a Flexible Work Strategy That Works
The Four-Day Week: Big Benefits, Not for Everyone
It takes a long time to settle into a four-day workweek, Griffis said. “It changes how you approach goals, projects and deadlines. We've gotten better at it the longer we've had the four-day workweek — and we're coming up on three years of working four days a week in May of this year.”
Bernyk said they regularly review how the policy impacts their work and the team.
“This includes regular engagement surveys and check-ins with our team to ensure the shortened week isn't increasing stress or work for the team, as well as our ability to remain staffed appropriately across our teams,” she said.
Ultimately, whether an organization might benefit from the four-day workweek seems to come down to the organization itself, and whether it’s willing or able to take risks in the hopes of improving employee experience.
About the Author
Michelle Hawley is an experienced journalist who specializes in reporting on the impact of technology on society. As a senior editor at Simpler Media Group and a reporter for CMSWire and Reworked, she provides in-depth coverage of a range of important topics including employee experience, leadership, customer experience, marketing and more. With an MFA in creative writing and background in inbound marketing, she offers unique insights on the topics of leadership, customer experience, marketing and employee experience. Michelle previously contributed to publications like The Press Enterprise and The Ladders. She currently resides in Pennsylvania with her two dogs.