With the pandemic and the evolution of flexible working, the importance of work-life balance has come under increasing scrutiny. More and more companies have been more keen and open to providing various flexible working arrangements, such as remote working and flexible hours.
Among the options, the four-day work week is getting a lot of attention at the moment. The LinkedIn users amongst you have most definitely encountered either a survey inquiring on the feasibility of such an initiative, or a personal post written by an employee who is enthusiastic about the initiative over the last days. Just like with remote working, supporters and opposers are making their case in support or against the four-day work week, citing benefits and drawbacks.
To shed light over this trend, and to effectively assess its merits and shortcomings, we wanted to present an objective synthesis of the existing evidence of the four-day work week so that you can form an informed opinion on this zeitgeisty topic.
The premise and key idea behind the four-day work week is rather simple: employees work for four days a week while (in most cases) still receiving a full-time salary.
In Germany and other countries, the initiative is also known as the 32h (or 30h) week. In these versions, it also often allows workers to organize their work week more flexibly, by for instance reducing their work hours on specific days and still distribute their work over 5 days per week. While the number of hours and the details of the policy might vary from country to country, all initiatives aim at shortening workweeks for employees without salary reductions.
The key hypothesis and driving motivation behind the four-day work week is that gains in productivity would compensate for the reduction in hours, thereby freeing up hours for your free personal use without adverse effects on your employer. The creation of more sustainable working practices and habits, for instance during meetings and in the prioritization of tasks, would help lower the burden on workers and enhance their ability to meet deadlines and goals.
Many, however, still question this underlying assumption, citing that this timeframe would not “fit” all sectors. Especially in customer-facing roles, a company-wide Four-Day work week with everyone not working on the same working day would not be feasible.
Multiple trials on a variety of four-day work week initiatives have been run in various countries, including the UK, Iceland, Japan, Zealand, Spain and Belgium. The results of these studies appear to show both benefits and drawbacks for employees and companies, and evidence appears to be especially mixed when it comes to assessing gains in productivity.
A study on Iceland’s journey to a shorter working week from 2021 which tracked 2,500 employees who reduced their workweek from a 40 hours to 35 or 36 hours revealed that increased levels of focus and presence led to increased productivity, by virtue of improvements in meeting practices and increases in employees’ ability to focus on exercising and socializing. This, according to the interviews, enhanced employee’s work performance.
In another study on an New Zealand trial of the four-day work week, increases in productivity have also been linked to increased levels of focus and presence, as well as higher motivation among the workforce. In fact, research found that many employees designed and implemented innovations and initiatives to work in a more productive and efficient manner. These are often positive “side effects” of introducing the 4-day week.
The improvements in employees’ work-life balance that resulted from a shortening of working hours have also been reported to drive up employee’s engagement.
A 2019 white paper published by 4 Day Week Global on a New Zealand trial revealed that team engagement in companies that took part in the four-day week trial increased by 18-20%. Moreover, surveys conducted as part of the Icelandic study showed positive changes at participating workplaces, including increased support from colleagues, more encouraging and just management, and more control over pace of work.
Evidence also clearly showed that businesses offering a four-day work week had significant advantages not only in attracting, but also in retaining top talent. The white paper cited above found that 80% of a cross-section of managers surveyed indicated that flexibility offerings impacted the recruitment of top talent, and that such initiatives would prove to be crucial also in the retention of top talent. We can certainly confirm these findings based on our own - anecdotal - experiences.
If you would like to dive deeper into the benefits and necessary prerequisities for the four day working week to produce these beneficial results, we can recommend reading "The 4 Day Week" by Andrew Barnes, who introduced the model at his company, the Perpetual Guardian in New Zealand.
However, the evidence, especially on enhanced productivity, is mixed, and supporters of the initiative appear to discount the implications of a shorter work week. In fact, reducing working hours does not necessarily reduce work. As a consequence, time at work could become even more intense and stressful for workers. A study investigating a four-day work week experiment set in New Zealand outlined that not only work intensified following the switch to the four-day work week, but that managerial pressures around performance measurement, monitoring, and productivity also increased for workers.
The evidence supporting the success and viability of the 4-day work week is derived from trials either within the public sector (i.e. In the case of Iceland) or among established companies (i.e Microsoft Japan or companies in the financial sector).
However, can the successes documented in these trials be translated to the start-up world in particular? This question is more relevant than ever, with layoffs in the start up sector reaching concerning numbers.
Can the four-day work week model for these businesses be financially viable? Can start-ups that might want to offer the four-day work week actually afford it, even in times of financial downturn like the one that we are living in now? The answer to these questions depends mainly on whether the central premise of those supporting the 4-day work week hold, i.e. that gains in productivity cancel out the loss in absolute working hours.
A case that may make us reflect upon the viability of this solution for start-ups is Treehouse, a Portland-based online education company that decided to introduce the model in 2016. As a tech start-up, Treehouse implemented the idea from their start, and in mid-2016 had 87 staff and $10M in revenue. Yet, a few months later Treehouse was forced to not only lay off 22 employees, but to put an end to their four-day work week trial as it could not afford the reduced hours model. In light of this example, we might wonder if it is indeed worth it to offer a benefit to attract talent that might irreversibly hurt the financial stability of a company?
Is it really attractive for everyone to work in a company that offers the four-day work week?
It is reasonable to expect that not everyone will be enthusiastic at the idea of shorter meetings, and more compact schedules. Some may suffer from the decrease in engagement with co-workers and the stress that might come with more challenging productivity demands. Others might actually prefer a bit more of a "hustle" culture to reach ambitious goals even when this means working more than 40 or let alone 32 hours.
As emerged by the results of a Gallup poll from March 2020, individuals working four-day weeks reported higher levels of unengagement, with five-day weeks workers reporting the lowest rate of unengaged workforce. This is a crucial consideration to make especially for workers that might enjoy the social aspects of their jobs or find their work so engaging that they don’t want to do less of it. Accordingly, a company might result to be less attractive to top-candidates who are looking for an engaging and social workplace.
Wildbit, a small Philadelphia-based software company, is surely one of the early supporters and endorsers of the initiative. They first transitioned to a four-day work week in 2017, and turned it into an official policy shortly after witnessing its success and benefits for their employees and operations. In this framework, teams began prioritizing deep work, which freed up precious time for them to effectively focus on their own work without interruptions. As they put it on their own website: “We’ve grown as a company, remained a strongly profitable business, and helped many other organizations recognize the value of focused work and the 4-day workweek”.
Yarno, an Australian microlearning software platform, has a different perspective upon their own trial of the four-day work week. Initially inspired by Treehouse, Yarno decided to believe in the viability of the initiative despite the US-based company’s failure to pursue the model. Yarno, despite the news, persisted with the experiment, and continued to use the model for 2 years. However, inconsistencies in teams’ ability to not work on Fridays and growing frustrations associated with these differences, led the start-up to put a halt to the initiative and to return to a 5-day work week. Nonetheless, the company is still committed to offer flexible working hours on those five days. As Managing Director Lanchy Gray stated himself about the initiative and the failed trial: “We wanted it to work because we believe in the principles behind it. But we have to face the facts, that it's not working as we thought it would. [... ] As Yarno matures, it’s certainly something I’d like to revisit.”
Like with many solutions to increase productivity and engagement, the idea of a four-day work week is not a suitable solution for everyone. While it is true that many companies have witnessed and enjoyed the benefits of implementing a condensed work week, it is important to remember that for many industries, businesses and individuals this is simply not a viable - or even the best - solution.
Especially for start-ups, this model might pose some crucial challenges that not only might be difficult to overcome, but that might put at risk the operational success and the financial viability of the company altogether.
Therefore, as in the case of other innovations in flexible working, evaluating the four-day work week requires a careful discussion. And one that is probably a bit less ideological - with hardened fronts on both sides - as the one we currently lead.