The Case for a Four-Day Work Week
January 27, 2020
I received a call from a client one day wanting to talk about a new employee that recently joined his team. My client was worried that this employee was getting into bad habits because of her work week schedule – she would come into the office by 9:00 am every morning and leave by 4:00 pm.
Me: So, how has she been performing? Has she been getting the job done?
Client: Oh yes! She’s been doing very well. The clients and her coworkers love her.
Me: So, what’s your concern?
Client: Well, we all stay here till 6:00 pm or later every day and she doesn’t.
Me: But she gets the same amount of work done or even more sometimes?
Client: Yes. What should I do?
Me: Hire 10 more just like her!
In most western countries the established work week has been set at 40 hours. Still, many ambitious workers pride themselves for going beyond that mark to “work” 60, 70, or even more hours a week. They even wear it as a badge of honor. But are they really being productive? Recent studies have shown how difficult it is to remain focused and productive for that many hours. Over the course of an eight-hour workday, the average employee works for about three hours. The signs of fatigue and burnout become evident as more people start missing time from work, report in sick, and eventually look for employment elsewhere.
In a culture that values high performance, we should take a moment to understand what that means. Performance is about results or outputs. When we can’t define the level of productivity we expect from our team members, we disguise our ignorance by paying them to simply be there for long periods of time. This is a lazy approach and potential mismanagement of our greatest asset: our people.
Surprising results about the four-day work week
Perpetual Guardian, a 240-employee firm in New Zealand which manages trusts, wills, and estates, let its employees work four days a week while being paid for five. The firm reduced the work week to 32 hours from 40 as an experiment and asked two researchers to study the effects on staff. The researchers noted that “employees reported a 24 percent improvement in work-life balance and came back to work energized after their days off.” The positive impact was noticeable to management as staff appeared more creative and engaged in their work. Attendance improved and they produced the same amount of work in the reduced work time. The employees were able to determine where they were wasting time in non-productive activities and were highly motivated to make positive changes. The result was a workforce that was empowered to work smarter, not just harder, to get things done.
Versa, an Australian digital marketing agency, implemented a four-day work week where employees at the company worked a standard-length day on Mondays and Tuesdays, then returned for another two on Thursday and Friday. No meetings were scheduled for Wednesdays – however, if a client had urgent work that needed doing, workers would pick up the phone.
The results over the course of a year showed an increase in revenue by 46 percent with profits nearly tripling according to the company’s CEO and founder, Kath Blackham. As a mother of two young children, Blackham was motivated to find a way to grow her career and care for her family without having to sacrifice one or the other. “What I set out to prove was that in one of the most unlikely industries – a service-based industry known for young people working super long hours – it can work if you come up with something innovative,” says Blackham.
These companies reported additional benefits from reduced operating expenses (i.e. electrical bills) of running the business fewer days and the impact on the environment from fewer people commuting and travelling to/from work. This is no surprise as it has been the core argument for telecommuting and virtual workplaces for a number of years. What is different, however, is the purposeful use of the break in the middle of the week to boost performance.
Why Hump Day?
Some organizations have tried to create flexibility by allowing workers to choose their “off day”, but in many instances that created confusion to others inside and outside the organization as it was difficult to know when someone was working, and collaboration was impacted. For others, simply adding an extra day to the weekend on Friday or Monday seemed to encourage more reasons not to be at work.
Wednesday acts as a midweek break that allows people to start the week fresh on Monday and Tuesday, knowing they can take care of life on Wednesday, and come back ready to finish the week strong Thursday and Friday. Then they can enjoy the weekend knowing they had a fully productive week; not because they spent so many hours at work, but because they got results for their time. In essence, it turns “hump day” into “bump day”, giving workers the boost they need to thrive!
The growing number of millennials – already the largest segment – and Gen Z in the workplace, creates an urgency for the implementation of a more flexible and innovative work week schedule. The work style preferences and habits of this majority, fueled by the gig economy, have disrupted the traditional paradigms of the rigid “9 to 5 and Monday to Friday” model. These are generations of workers seeking the elusive work-life balance. They have shown they are even willing to forgo raises and promotions for greater flexibility in their work schedule, and the ability to have a life outside the workplace. They are highly motivated to make flexible schedules work. They are moving us closer to a world where people work to live, rather than live to work!
A matter of intent and purpose
Andrew Barnes, Perpetual Guardian’s founder, said he believed his organization was the first business in the world to pay staff for 40 hours when working 32; other firms have allowed employees to work shorter weeks by compressing the standard 40 hours into fewer days, or allowed people to work part-time for a reduced salary.
Barnes said the results of Perpetual Guardian’s trial showed that when hiring staff, supervisors should negotiate tasks to be performed, rather than basing contracts on hours new employees spent in the office. “A contract should be about an agreed level of productivity,” he added. “If you deliver that in less time, why should I cut your pay?”
The quest for productivity, quality, and efficiency is not something new for companies, where the mantra of doing more with less is commonplace. The idea has always been to compress the time it takes to get the results so you can then fill the newly available time with… more work to get results!
In my many years of working with, and for, corporations, the intent of a modified schedule was first and foremost to cut hard dollar, operating, and labor costs. The implied expectation was that employees still had to work as hard to complete all the assigned work, just in less time and even for less pay. This commonly left employees feeling overworked or used, with the reward for good work being more work. The emphasis was simply on the benefits created for the company, and the relationship with the employees seemed almost adversarial.
If you noted that none of the companies mentioned here are based in North America, you would be correct. The question is, where are the companies that are willing to try this innovative approach? Would your company – or at least a division, a department, or even a team – be willing to test a new work week? In this marketplace, could your company attract more and better talent that is motivated to make this experiment work for them and the organization? It will take a courageous employer and motivated employees to show that this idea can make financial sense and also be the right thing to do.
If this describes your organizational culture and workforce, and you are willing to implement this idea, please send us your feedback and data. We would love to feature your findings and results in a future article as we revisit this topic. Please send your feedback and thoughts by emailing email@example.com. We look forward to hearing from you.
To learn more about how to improve the employee experience, access Achievers’ webinar recording, “Taking Employee Experience to the Next Level by Delivering Personalization at Scale.”