Though many treat the 40-hour, five-day workweek as a preordained standard for the American workplace, the reality is that it was created by a revision to the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1940. The 40-hour five-day workweek emerged during a time when communities were smaller and tighter-knit, working remotely was impossible, and 1 in 3 women did not work outside the home. The world has changed so much. Is it time for the structure of the workweek to change too?
A growing body of evidence shows that a four-day workweek can be good for employees and business owners alike. But every employee and every workplace is different; before implementing this policy, small business owners should make sure their approach is aligned to their situation.
Americans work longer hours than their peers across the globe and, compounded by the lingering impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, that overwork may be catching up with us. In a recent survey by Deloitte, 77% of respondents said they have experienced workplace burnout at their current job, with even those who are passionate about their jobs feeling frequently stressed at work.
Burnout is bad not just for employees; it also contributes to staff turnover. According to Saundra Dalton-Smith, physician and author of Sacred Rest: Recover Your Life, Renew Your Energy, Restore Your Sanity (FaithWords, 2019), excessive stress leads to job hopping, whether or not it actually resolves the underlying issue.
“Right now so many people don’t feel that they’re in a sustainable position, so they move on to a new job. Then, of course, they find themselves in the same situation,” Dalton-Smith said.
This burnout is bringing new attention to the four-day workweek. Studies show that many employees want a four-day workweek and believe that they could still do their jobs with one fewer day at the office. Pilot efforts, including at a Microsoft subsidiary in Japan and at New Zealand financial services firm Perpetual Garden, have shown that a shorter workweek can actually boost productivity, or at least not decrease it.
A pilot program in Britain that was scheduled to run through November 2022 was designed to see how this research plays out in the real world. Through the program, employees at 73 companies received a paid day off every week over the course of six months.
At the midpoint of the pilot, a survey was delivered to the participating companies, with 85% responding that they were “likely” or “extremely likely” to consider the program beyond the end of the trial. More than 95% of the companies saw no decline or even an improvement in productivity, and nearly 15% said that productivity had improved “significantly.”
The four-day workweek is part of a larger realization by companies that when their employees feel valued, they’ll be more committed and better at their jobs. According to Evan Myers, senior vice president at AccuWeather, a little bit of freedom can go a long way.
“If a company can be flexible and understand the humanity of work-life balance, they will get more of people’s talent and creativity,” Myers said.
Hundreds of companies, varying in size and industry, have embraced a four-day workweek, but there is no standard template. When considering your own approach, the question may not be “Can we implement it?” but instead “How should we implement it?”
Some companies simply shift to four 10-hour days per week, while others stick with four eight-hour days and count on well-rested employees getting more done when they are in the office. Some offer employees a shorter workweek with an accompanying pay cut, while others implement a four-day workweek for employees whose roles allow for flexibility, while keeping hours steady for those whose roles don’t.
Others still are shifting to a role-based approach, encouraging employees who have minimal interaction with their colleagues to get their jobs done whenever and wherever it makes the most sense to them. If employees want a four-day workweek, they can make that choice for themselves.
The four-day workweek remains experimental, and if you’re considering transitioning to a shortened week it’s important to develop a strategy that suits your business’s and employees’ needs.
Just as adapting to working from home was more complicated for some employers than others, a four-day workweek presents more significant challenges for some companies, and for some types of employees, than others. For workplaces that face greater barriers, a little bit of strategic thinking goes a long way.
For example, working from home made it more difficult for employees to connect organically, batting around new ideas at the water cooler or addressing small problems before they become big ones. A four-day workweek could exacerbate that. If you’re concerned about the loss of connection, consider a fixed four-day workweek where everyone is working the same days.
For employees whose roles are not a fit for a four-day workweek, such as those who work in production roles with tight deadlines, consider other types of flexibility so they don’t feel like they’re being excluded from a new benefit. For example, Myers says, “We give people in production roles, where legally possible, the opportunity to work more than five days straight if they want, to bank time off they can take later.”
If you’re worried about a four-day workweek slowing down productivity, consider using employee monitoring software to ensure employees are making the most of the time they are working.
Before you can start designing an alternative workweek, you need to understand what your employees need and what they value. Start during onboarding with a new-hire survey or with one-on-one conversations, emphasizing that you’re trying to design a policy that works for everyone. You can extend this to your existing workforce as well by commissioning focus groups or a committee to explore the idea from your employees’ perspectives.
A four-day workweek can be particularly important for employees with greater responsibilities at home, according to Charlotte Lockhart, founder and CEO of 4 Day Week Global. “Reducing work hours provides better options to families to manage care duties more equitably so parents can value care responsibilities without negatively impacting their income or career progression.”
However, not all parents may want a whole day off. For some, it may be more helpful to be able to come in slightly later or leave slightly earlier for school pickup and dropoff. Some may prioritize working from home, regardless of the hours.
You can also use more sophisticated tools to understand how employees are faring, such as Dr. Dalton-Smith’s rest quiz, to help employees better understand their own needs and empower them to play a role in creating a new policy. By understanding these needs, you can craft a plan that is more responsive.
Once you develop the plan, share the thinking behind it. Even if you can’t meet every employee’s needs, they are likely to appreciate the consideration and be sympathetic to the fact that their colleagues have different needs than theirs.
Tip: Don’t assume you understand what employees want out of a four-day workweek. Ask them by conducting employee surveys and encouraging employee feedback in performance reviews and one-on-one meetings.
A four-day workweek isn’t just a way to improve employee well-being. Transitioning to a shorter workweek can also support broader company goals for many businesses.
For example, a four-day workweek may also help to close the gender pay gap, which is critical for companies that want to become more welcoming to female employees.
“The four-day week will mean that women returning to work after having children will not need to negotiate shorter workweeks in exchange for a pay cut,” Lockhart said.
Emphasizing the policy, and the fact you considered the needs of new parents in creating it, can send a powerful message that your workplace is family-friendly.
Are you focused on diversity, equity and inclusion? Emphasize a four-day workweek as a benefit to distinguish your company when recruiting diverse job candidates. Are you trying to cut costs? Offer employees the choice to take a four-day workweek in exchange for other benefits that come with a price tag, as part of a holistic compensation plan. Are you focused on human capital management? Give staff a four-day workweek and have them spend part of the fifth day taking online trainings.
If you want to achieve the benefits of a four-day workweek, the policy has to be backed up by managers and by a culture that supports its implementation. A four-day workweek in which people are still expected to answer emails on the fifth day may breed employee frustration.
“If the schedule says people are only working four days a week, but their managers still expect them to respond to emails on the day off or on weekends, what have you really achieved?” Myers said. “If you don’t have clear boundaries and policies in place to support it, you won’t change much.”
Before you implement a four-day workweek, make sure that managers and members of the human resources team understand the goals and expectations, and give them a chance to express their concerns and ask questions. If they’re less than enthusiastic, take the time to understand why and address any issues. Because they are the frontline implementers of the policy, it will likely fail without their buy-in.
To get the benefits of a four-day workweek, the policy must be reinforced with a culture that supports boundaries between work and home life.
Though a four-day workweek may not be a fit for every company, the research shows that in many places it can boost employee well-being while improving, or at least not harming, productivity. Getting it right takes some creativity and an understanding of your employees’ needs, but the payoff can be significant.