A Four-Day Work Week: Where Is It Practised, and Do You Need It?

A Four-Day Work Week: Where Is It Practised, and Do You Need It?

| Career

Four working days instead of five – isn't that a fairy tale?

Under the four-day work week concept, company employees get an extra day off but keep the same salary and daily performance rate. Sometimes, this approach to work is called "100-80-100" because you are still paid 100% as before and work at the same 100% efficiency, but the number of hours gets reduced to 80%.

Of course, this does sound great for employees, but from the employers' point of view, it is highly questionable. Nevertheless, people have long talked about a four-day week, and its supporters have strong arguments. One of them says that once the five-day work week replaced the six-day work week, it made a real revolution and caused horror among economists. Also, current international experience, which has survived the coronavirus pandemic and other shocks, has repeatedly shown that working in different ways without losing efficiency is possible, however, with slightly different nuances.

Case Studies and Global Practice of the Four-Day Work Week

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Even though the four-day work week was actively discussed just during the pandemic, when the world was forced to reconsider old approaches to production and work, the concept has been around for many years. It has been practised here and there for just as long, and - paradoxically - it has been successful everywhere.

The English company Roundpay Metal Finishers was the first to try this innovation, and it happened back in 1965. The management decided on such a reduction, however, not for the welfare of its employees but to reduce the social and utility costs of the company for energy and water. Simultaneously, the working hours remained the same: all forty hours were distributed equally among the other weekdays. In this regard, such a trick cannot be fully considered a realisation of the idea of four-day work. After all, its essence is to reduce the workload, not just to change the schedule, but it was the first experiment of this kind.

In 2018, Perpetual Guardian, a company specialising in financial services, conducted a similar experiment in New Zealand. They reduced for 240 employees not only the number of working days as Roundpay Metal Finisher but also the hours, namely from thirty-seven point five hours to thirty. The company also maintained the same salary level.

As a result of Perpetual Guardian's experience, which lasted a year, it turned out that employees' productivity increased in proportion to the amount by which their working hours got reduced. Simply put, employees became more efficient, even though they worked an order of magnitude less. It is also interesting that the duration of meetings, work meetings and lunch was involuntarily reduced. People were more willing to return to daily tasks than before. At the same time, stress levels decreased - from 45% to 38%, and 78% of employees positively evaluated the balance between their personal life and career, compared to 54% last year.

In 2019, Microsoft Japan also test-drove a four-day work week as part of the Work-Life Choice Challenge. It was joined by two thousand three hundred employees, who got an extra day off on Friday. According to the results of this experiment, employees took sick leave less often, and the number of days-off and the consumption of electricity and water were also reduced. Employee productivity increased as much as in Perpetual Guardian - by 40%!

However, the largest experiment in the four-day work week was the Icelandic experiment, conducted simultaneously in many companies and industries nationwide. Thus, companies switched from a forty-hour week to a thirty-five or a thirty-six-hour week. IT startups, social services, medical institutions, and educational institutions participated. Given their industries' specifics, some had to switch to shift work from nine to five - but the experiment conditions were still met.

The results of the Icelandic experiment showed that employee productivity did not increase in all companies, but importantly, it did not drop in any of them. In 90% of them, stress levels also decreased, and the general condition of employees, including their physical health, improved. More specifically, the psychologists controlling the experiment found that employees were likelier to delegate, prioritise rationally, and procrastinate less in the workplace. Work meetings also got shorter - as it is worth noting, the same was documented in the Perpetual Guardian experiment, and many business processes were moved to an online format, significantly speeding them up.

Oh, and by the way, after that, Iceland decided to scale the experiment to the whole country. Now, about 80% of the able-bodied population of Iceland works on a similar schedule - nevertheless, the decision to switch gets decided by companies and trade unions.

Indeed, just at the end of July 2023, the last part of the most extensive Four Day Week Global campaign, launched in New Zealand but covering a few countries, including Australia, the UK, and the US, came to an end. All the companies that joined the campaign (one of its founders, incidentally, is the head of Perpetual Guardian) introduced a four-day work week in December 2022. Employees also showed efficiency gains, with company revenues increasing by an average of 15%. A third of employees also noted that the risk of being laid off in favour of another company has significantly decreased.

However, in the latest experiment, it's important to note that each company decided on its own how it would allocate its remaining work hours. It held workshops and sessions with expert employees in advance to prepare them for the transition to the new schedule.

The Four-Day Work Week: Is It a Good Idea?

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Based on all the above, the four-day work week wins out over the five-day work week in every respect. And perhaps that is indeed true. According to a Gallup think tank study of the respondents, 23% of employees still working a five-day work week feel emotional burnout regularly, while 44% experience it intermittently. The conclusions become clear when compared to the four-day work week numbers.

However, there are always advantages and costs in everything. Thus, according to the results, the main pluses of the four-day working week can be unambiguously attributed to:

  • Increased productivity and quality of work of employees. It is logical because rest restores internal resources. A rested employee is an efficient employee, and they make fewer mistakes, react to changes faster, take initiative and creativity more often, and at the same time spend less time on procrastination.

  • Reduced sick leave and lay-offs. Companies that practice a four-day work week show high employee retention rates. They also build careers faster and even increase business profits.

  • More economical allocation of time between work tasks. Limited working time motivates to speed up work and optimise business processes, and that's why a four-day working week is typically implemented in parallel with technological innovations.

  • Reduced business costs and increased reputation in the labour market. Everyone wants to work in a company with a four-day week, and the business saves on energy, social security and perhaps even rent. It's also worth noting the environmental benefits: factories and vehicles start to emit fewer hazardous gases.

Possible disadvantages of such a work week include:

  • The company becomes less accessible to customers. Given the highly competitive market, there is an increased risk that customers will turn to those who work 24/7 to avoid waiting for your company to open. In the worst-case scenario, this can lead to lower revenue.

  • Uneven distribution of workload. Not all employees know how to prioritise tasks properly. For this reason, you should train them in time management and only then initiate such changes to the work schedule.

  • It is unsuitable for everyone. Some industries, such as heavy industry, utilities, and grocery stores, cannot afford a four-day work week. It is easiest to convert office workers, especially IT workers, to a four-day week.

  • The risk of the Hawthorne effect. The performance shown by employees on a four-day week may be a "temporary euphoria", and after a while, it will decline again. It is debatable, however, as many experiments have lasted more than a year, and performance has not changed.

  • It is necessary to introduce shift schedules for some industries. There are also difficulties coordinating between employees and departments, especially if they all work different hours.

Alternatives to the Four-Day Work Week: What Should You Choose?

After reading all the pros and cons, you probably want to borrow from the former and avoid the latter. It is possible! After all, intermediate measures between the five-day and four-day work week produce similar results in combination.

For example:

  • Introduce flexible working hours. Offer employees the opportunity to plan their schedules (e.g., taking days-off when it suits them rather than Saturday and Sunday) or to work remotely from time to time (e.g., three days in the office and two at home). All these also reduce stress and, at the same time, increase efficiency.

  • Individual approach to employees and personalised motivation system. Offer employees, for example, one extra day-off per month for high performance or develop personalised career plans for them. In short, ask what motivates your employees to perform better and makes them more comfortable in the office. Perhaps a simple coffee machine purchased for the office kitchen or free lunches will do the trick.

  • Re-evaluate work approaches and processes. Reconsider the number of weekly meetings, reallocate tasks and responsibilities, and optimise business processes that complicate work or take up unnecessary time. Adopting innovation and appropriate technology can also help you do this.

You can always reduce the total number of working hours without reducing the number of days (in the Netherlands, for example, they only work twenty-nine hours a week). Or you can test a four-day work week and offer it to a group of employees to choose from, and then see how it affects your company in practice. The key is to be clear about the goals of the innovation and how to track the new schedule, as well as to consider possible problems and prepare solutions. Not all employees need four working days instead of five - some may oppose it. Businesses need to understand and accept that there are no perfect employees, schedules, or tools because sometimes you have to put up with it.

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