If you want to perk up the average employee, mention a ‘four-day work week.’
And if you want to perk up the average employer, mention ‘cost-savings without impacting production.’
Shorter work weeks are being tested in pilot programs around the world, promising happier employees, more efficient workplaces, and better work-life balance for everyone. We know the future of work will be flexible and often hybrid … will it be shorter too?
In this article, we explore the ins and outs of four-day work weeks.
We cover both the (far-reaching) advantages of shorter work weeks, along with the (fewer, but still noteworthy) disadvantages.
We’ll also review the current tug-of-war between hybrid work and four-day work weeks, along with how companies can choose the best option between the two (hint: finding the right solution takes time and testing).
Insights, tactics, and strategies from today’s workplace
leaders on how they’re shifting the office to better
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A four-day work week is just what it sounds like: working for four days out of the week, instead of the typical five.
Most of the time, this means a 32-hour work week; employees literally work one full day less each week (for four 8-hour work days, not five). This is called the 100-80-100 model (100% pay, 80% hours, and 100% commitment to the same productivity levels), and it’s what most people are talking about when they say ‘shorter work weeks.’
Critically, workers will still get the same pay, despite working the shorter week. In other words, they’re still considered ‘full time’ workers—the company (and perhaps someday the society) just redefines the meaning of ‘full time.’
Regardless of the model they follow, shorter work weeks are rising in popularity thanks in large part to a large study recently held in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the U.S. (among other countries), which we’ll explore further below.
It’s also currently being promoted by Rep. Mark Takano, a Californian politician who has championed and introduced legislation to officially reduce the work week to 32 hours; he says he wants Americans to have more time “to live, play, and enjoy life more fully outside of work.”
Note that a four-day week is not the same thing as Google’s famous 80/20 formula, which allows employees to spend paid time on personal projects and work-related experiments; Google employees may not technically be working on ‘work’ for 40 hours, but they’re still on Google’s clock for that time.
Note, too, that while we’re primarily focusing on white collar offices in this article, many different types of companies and organizations are considering the shorter work week.
For example, more and more schools are starting the practice, often in rural areas in an attempt to keep budgets in check. Of course, this will work best when parents also have four-day weeks that they can align with their childrens’.
A less popular but still notable strategy for reducing employee hours comes from the ‘4/10 work week’ model, also known as a compressed work schedule. Here, employees still have a 40-hour work week, but those hours are worked over four days.
In this scenario, employees still get that extra day off. But they make up for it by adding two hours to every other day they work. They’re essentially ‘paying’ for their day off by working 10-hour days, every day.
This model has its proponents and may work best for certain companies. That said, because of its prominence and more-studied benefits, we’ll be referring explicitly to strategies using 32 hours a week for the remainder of this article.
For many (if not most), calling this new way of working either a ‘four-day work week’ or a ‘three-day weekend’ is basically a case of ‘tomato-tomahto.’ That’s because the day off usually falls on a Monday or Friday, and it’s usually consistent. So for many workers, they’ll basically have a perpetual three-day weekend.
That said, there’s a wide variety of four-day arrangements on the table. For example, some may go with a midweek break, taking Wednesdays off. Others might continually rotate the day off throughout the week.
Ultimately, there’s currently a spate of trials and pilot programs offering interesting insights on interesting models—but this won’t be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ scenario. Going forward, each company will likely need to develop their own model, based on their unique culture, infrastructure, budget, and goals.
Those who scoff at a four-day work week may be surprised to know that the five-day work week was also once a pipe dream for many workers.
Indeed, the number of hours we now typically work was standardized in the early 1900s, thanks to union advocacy.
Prior to this time, working six days a week, and/or 60 hours or more, was the norm.
And even as the five-day week was adopted, the idea of an even shorter week still glimmered. Many economists and leaders of the day thought that working four days, or even as few as 15 hours a week, were on the horizon (John Maynard Keynes and Richard Nixon notable among them).
If thought pieces on the four-day work week are popping up in your newsfeed lately, there’s a good reason.
Namely, nonprofit groups 4 Day Week Global and 4 Day Week U.K. just finished up a massive six-month trial of a four-day work week, the largest such trial to date. 61 UK companies, comprising almost 3000 employees, took part in the study last year.
The results of the project were so positive that 92% of companies are continuing on with their shorter weeks, even now that the project is officially over. And employers, take note: 15% of participating employees now say that ‘no amount of money’ would entice them back into work five days a week.
While this was the biggest and most comprehensive trial we’ve seen, it’s just one of many now taking place across the globe. In other words, expect to see lots more stories in your newsfeed to come.
Trials are now running from New York to California, Belgium to Spain, Japan to New Zealand and Australia, and indeed all over the world. And according to new research from Henley Business School, the majority (two-thirds) of companies now believe that four-day work weeks will become essential for future success.
Many organizations are also moving out of the trial phase, turning shorter work weeks into permanent policies For example, Alida, a company based in Toronto but with offices across North America, is now offering ‘Summer Fridays,’ in large part due to the success of a recent trial period. Shopify offers four-day weeks during the summer, while Buffer, Kickstarter, Amazon, and many, many more companies offer it full-time for at least some employees, in some form or another.
The pandemic opened a Pandora’s box when it comes to flexible working strategies.
Suddenly, issues surrounding mental health, work-life balance, health care, and avoiding burnout all (finally) got their due.
The pivot to remote working also allowed employees to show that they could be just as productive (if not more so) when they were freed from the 9-to-5 chains that once held them in place and in-office.
Of course, if you follow the headlines today, you’d be forgiven for thinking ‘hybrid’ and ‘flexible’ and ‘agile’ and ‘shorter work weeks’ are all the same thing—and certainly, they’re all part of the same attempt to solve the same puzzle.
But the four-day work week is completely different from a hybrid workplace; a company could offer one without the other, or both at the same time.
Like we’ve covered, a shorter work week reduces working hours without reducing pay.
Meanwhile, a hybrid work model is any that allows for both in-office and remote work, on any type of hybrid schedule.
And both are broad workplace strategies that can be incredibly effective for boosting employee engagement and experience, without sacrificing productivity or efficiency.
So, what do workers really want?
A new survey found that 61% of employees want a four-day work week, with 33% saying they’d quit their current job to find one.
Compare this to all the many studies showing similar sentiments regarding hybrid work (51% of remote and hybrid employees recently reporting they’d quit if mandated back to the office, for example).
The reality is that this isn’t an either-or scenario. Today’s employees have made it clear that they want flexible work arrangements, period.
While employees are set on more flexibility, employers are more split on the issue. Mandates to use the office remain unpopular (just see the recent massive strike of Canadian federal workers, pushing in large part for the right to keep working remotely).
But, as the 2023 OfficeSpace Workplace Strategy Report also makes clear, most workplace leaders want their employees in the office more, to boost both collaboration and culture efforts. Dovetailing with this idea, an interesting new study found that some employers would be more inclined to implement four-day weeks if employees spent all four days in the office.
The four-day work week can certainly allow for more collaboration in a flexible environment, assuming everyone’s schedule is in sync.
That said, remember that what employees really want is flexibility and autonomy. And ‘hybrid vs. shorter work weeks’ doesn’t have to be either-or.
“[Organizations] were quick to adopt hybrid working as a result of the pandemic, however the four-day week is a much bigger cultural and operational shift for many [organizations],” says Gaelle Blake, of Hays UK and Ireland. “Whilst the four-day working week is an attractive offering for workers, there are lots of ways for employers to stand out from the crowd by allowing staff flexibility in the form of hybrid working, flexible hours and more.”
Of course, not everyone wants to work shorter weeks. Some may prefer working at a more leisurely pace, for example, or relish their alone time on the morning commute (we’ll cover some of the specific drawbacks of four-day weeks below).
And just like you can push things too hard in your first yoga class, companies may find that pushing too much flexibility too fast does more harm than good.
That’s why companies looking to bypass the issues with both hybrid and short weeks may want to explore agile working.
This is a strategy that allows employees to choose when, where, how, and with whom they work.
As such, it allows employees to follow a hybrid approach, if that’s what they prefer (while keeping fully in-office work and fully remote work on the table, too).
And in theory, if companies are following the letter of the agile law, then employees would also be able to choose a four-day work week.
Of course in practice, agile work examples will typically have more guardrails in place (along with 40-hour work weeks). But the idea is solid: employees are adults who know how they work best, and they should be allowed to make personal choices that will allow them to achieve their personal best at work.
“Most people do the right thing,” says workplace strategist Angie Earlywine, Senior Director in the Total Workplace division of Global Occupier Services at Cushman & Wakefield. “They enjoy the work that they’re doing. The labor market is too competitive now to not be doing what you love. Or to work for a company that you don’t believe in.”
Naturally, though, when it comes to agile and employee-driven work, it’s even more important to ensure you have optimized and accessible hybrid workplace technology and digital workplace solutions in place. Without the right tools and policies, agile working can quickly descend into chaos. It’s best left to companies willing and able to stay nimble and continually test and iterate new setups and strategies.
Bare Minimum Monday, Quiet Quitting, Rage Applying (the latest, where disgruntled employees suddenly decide to go job hunting), a still-lurking Great Resignation … the world of work is now plagued with a litany of (potentially scary) new workplace trends.
And while the media may breathlessly latch on to each new big and scary idea, these aren’t just buzzwords. They’re concepts that are putting a name to the malaise that has chafed at the edges of white collar work since the very inception of the office.
Spend any time in an office, or watch any movie or sitcom about the workplace, and you’re going to see people who struggle on Mondays, willingly or not. There’s a reason 15% of people say they already willingly choose to do less on Mondays, so that they can be productive the rest of the week.
So perhaps the biggest advantage of a four-day work week is the opportunity it presents to completely reframe our relationship to work in a healthier and more sustainable way. It’s a paradigm shift, one that draws a direct line between employee well-being with company revenue, and puts the needs of employees on the same level as the bottom line.
“Employee experience is really the name of the game right now,” says Earlywine.
In short, especially in a time plagued with concerns about inflation and global uncertainty, employees could certainly use a boost like a shorter work week. And, when it’s managed properly, this boost can lead to a world of downstream benefits, for employees and employers.
Stress levels going down while work-life balances goes up … the benefits of a shorter work week for employees are often quite obvious.
Employees can use their extra time to connect with loved ones, work on personal projects and hobbies, take care of the kids, exercise, garden, volunteer in their communities, get a massage, take in a meditation class, finally make time for the dentist, catch up on Netflix—the sky is really the limit.
In turn, they can sleep better and come to work refreshed, able to bring their best, most productive and engaged selves to work.
Thanks to the 4 Day Week Global pilot project, we now have good data about specific benefits of a four-day work week, including:
With results and benefits like these, it’s not surprising that, on average, employees ranked their experience of the trial as a 9.1 out of 10. Even more telling, a whopping 96.9% wanted to continue working this way, even after the trial ended.
It’s not rocket science: employees who bring their best, most well-rested selves to work are going to do better work and be more productive.
More and more, it’s becoming clear that happy employees will be able to work better, focus more, and waste less time. This can lead to more collaboration and a resulting more collaborative culture in the workplace.
Workplace wellbeing can also lead to more employee engagement, which can help with long term talent attraction and retention efforts.
Beyond this, specific proven benefits from the trial include:
Notably, the four-day work week trial showed some promising indications that this new way of working could have positive environmental impacts.
Specifically, both commuting time, and the amount of time spent commuting via car, both dropped for employees during the trial. Notably, employees also reported a ‘small but significant’ increase in recycling, walking, cycling, and buying eco-friendly products.
Of course, a large part of an organization’s carbon footprint comes from their real estate portfolio. Shutting down the office for one day each week is a great way to use less resources.
One of the lesser known advantages of a four-day work week is also among its most important.
Most companies today (and every smart one) are concerned with how to promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Offering shorter work weeks may be an easy way to get there.
Namely, offering a four-day work week can potentially promote diversity and a more inclusive company culture, accommodating a wider variety of workers than more traditional offices.
Consider that the global trial found that a parent with two children could save an average of approximately $4,035 a year on childcare costs.
And speaking of childcare, four-day work weeks can be especially beneficial for those employees more likely to be tasked with caregiving duties—i.e.: women.
Specifically, in the recent pilot project, the amount of time men spent looking after their children rose by 27%, while for women this needle only moved by 13%.
In other words, men who work shorter hours in the office tend to spend more time working at home—a boon to the women on whom caregiving and housekeeping tasks often fall.
“It is wonderful to see that we can shift the dial and start to create more balance of care duties in households,” says Charlotte Lockhart, founder and managing director of 4DWG.
While women reported a better experience with the four-day work week overall, it’s been beneficial for anyone with caring responsibilities—62% of all workers reported being able to balance their jobs with their care responsibilities better.
Finally, note that women and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) individuals are those employees most likely to face burnout in the workplace. Companies therefore can and should explore flexible work environments that can curb stress and burnout (whether that’s through a shorter week specifically, or another arrangement).
There’s no such thing as a free lunch, or a workplace strategy that is 100% perfect for all people, all of the time. Four-day work weeks won’t work for every company or for every employee, for a host of different reasons.
For example, a shorter work week can complicate issues like annual leave and other HR policies. It can make customer service more challenging, so companies in this field will need to play close attention to the impact on customer service response times.
And while, like we’ve covered, many are optimistic about the potential benefits for DE&I, there are concerns here, too. For example, some worry that it will lead to minorities receiving less mentorship.
Ultimately, a four-day work week can only really work when it aligns with the overarching culture in the workplace, and when leadership ensures there are appropriate workplace collaboration tools in place to support it. Hunches and positive headlines are great—but such a massive paradigm shift needs to be supported with good workforce analytics and policies.
“There will also be knock-on effects on the rest of the team if everyone is just shifting their meeting times to one less day a week, or worse, if people are taking different days off from each other, says Questrom’s Constance Hadley, speaking with Boston University Today. “It could mean longer stretches of meetings on those four days, which are also a cause of burnout and dissatisfaction.”
Finally, remember that part of the deal when it comes to four-day work weeks is that employees commit to staying just as productive, just over fewer hours. And many will relish the opportunity to work ‘smarter, not harder.’
“Knowing I only have 32 hours in a workweek, I’m very conscientious of where I spend my time,” one woman with a four-day week tells The Globe and Mail, for example. “I’ve become much better at prioritizing and making sure what I’m working on is actually going to drive the objectives, the metrics, the things that I need to accomplish.”
But not everyone is going to want such an intense schedule. Not everyone likes multitasking and powering through. Some people may prefer to work at a more leisurely pace, or may require extra time for deadlines.
“I worry a lot about creating even longer, more hectic days, with spillover effects on the three days off, like you spend the first half of that fifth day just recuperating and cleaning up your inbox,” says Hadley.
And tellingly, despite all the positive recent trial results, another recent study found that four in 10 employees say they’d prefer sticking to a traditional five day week. This likely highlights at least in part the need for leadership to provide clear guidance on what a shorter work week would actually mean for their day-to-day.
“My first thought is maybe they’re concerned about working longer days in order to achieve fifth day off, or they wonder if they’ll really be off that fifth day,” Vicki Salemi, career expert at Monster, tells CNBC. “That tells me there needs to be clear definitions from employers about what their four-day workweek looks like in order to address this hesitancy.”
There’s no one work schedule that is best for every company or every employee. The most successful workplace teams will have workplaces, work strategies, and work schedules that are optimized for them. And the only way to truly optimize in this way is to collect and use workplace data.
In other words, to figure out what work schedule is best, companies must embrace workplace agility by testing, iterating, and gathering employee input at each stage of the process. Assuming the end goal is more empowerment in the workplace, then there are many ways to get there. But any plans for workplace transformation need to be supported with advanced workplace analytics, and they need to be monitored carefully.
“Figuring out that recipe of what to give to each team is complex,” says Earlywine. “One of the most important things is to figure out what is fit for purpose, down to the team and down to the individual, and how does it align to the short and long term goals of the business.”
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Companies in several countries are testing or adopting four-day work weeks in some capacity, including Iceland, New Zealand, Japan, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia. In particular, 90% of employees in Iceland have the right to request a shorter work week.
Although not technically a ‘four-day work week,’ many countries (including many in Europe) have work weeks that are shorter than 40 hours.
Coming in at an average of 29.5, the Netherlands is the OECD country with the shortest average work week. Denmark, Norway, and Switzerland all also have relatively short work weeks. That said, it’s important to note that the average length of work weeks can vary greatly, even within a country, depending on the industry and type of job.
While there are no countries that mandate six-day work weeks, many do allow employees to work six or seven days in a row. Countries like Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, and India all have famously high average working hours each week.
No—most pilot projects for the four-day work week follow the 100-80-100 model, which defines the four-day work week as working 32 hours a week. Workers receive the same pay as they did when working 40 hours. They just get to work one day less.
However, in the 4/10 model, the work week is still 40 hours. In this scenario, employees work for ten hours a day, four days a week.
While no one country can claim to have the ‘official’ longest work week, employees in many countries tend to work a lot more than 40 hours on average. For example, nearly one quarter of Japanese companies require 80 hours of overtime a month. Workers in Gambia, Mongolia, Maldives, Qatar, and India can all also expect to work long hours.
Note that given the negative impact that working long hours can have on employee health and well-being, many countries are adopting policies to limit overtime and/or actively experimenting with shorter work weeks.
The average work week in the USA is actually 38.6 hours, which is in line with many other OECD countries. The international average work week among OECD countries is 36.8 hours.
Quantifying the happiest working hours is difficult, given that happiness at work relies on a variety of factors (including work-life balance policies, job satisfaction, and individual preferences/circumstances). That said, companies that are known for promoting work-life balance and continually boasting happy workers are Finland, Denmark, Switzerland, and the Netherlands.
Photos: FatCamera, Delmaine Donson, PixelsEffect, Delmaine Donson, Rowan Jordan, Delmaine Donson