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The Four-day Workweek Isn't as Crazy as You Think

woman waving goodbye to another at office
Four days may be all you really need to get your work done, leaving you more time to take care of your personal life. The Good Brigade/Getty Images

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Microsoft dropped a whopper of a study last week showing that productivity at its offices in Japan increased by 40 percent after the company required workers to take every Friday off. (Workers were still paid for five days of work.) The announcement from one of the world's biggest tech companies breathed new life to the argument that a shortened workweek is not only better for workers but better for the bottom line.

Microsoft wasn't the first company to test out a four-day workweek. In 2018, a New Zealand trustee services firm called Perpetual Guardian ran a two-month trial in which its 250 employees worked four eight-hour days a week but got paid for five. Like Microsoft, the company not only saw upticks in productivity, but also lower stress levels among workers and higher job satisfaction.

Andrew Barnes, founder of Perpetual Guardian, hypothesizes that shaving a day from the workweek would incentivize employees to work more efficiently without sacrificing overall productivity. What he didn't expect was that working less would make their jobs easier.

"More people said they were better able to handle their workload working four days a week rather than five," says Barnes. "That was the one that shocked me."

The two-month trial was such a success that Perpetual Guardian permanently switched to what Barnes calls a "100/80/100" system: 100 percent pay, 80 percent hours, 100 percent productivity. Unlike Microsoft Japan, which dictated when its workers could take their day off (Fridays only), Perpetual Guardian lets its workers decide which day to drop. They can even continue to work five days a week, but with fewer hours each day.

Overworked and Underproductive

There are different models to the four-day workweek. Some consist of cramming 40 hours of work into four 10-hour days. Others simply reduce the workweek to, say, 32 hours, on the premise that the workers will be more focused on the work at hand and not on other activities if there is a shorter timespan. The latter is the model we'll be talking about.

Does it sound hard to believe you could get all your work done in just 32 hours? Maybe not. According to a survey of U.K. office workers, the average number of truly productive hours in an eight-hour day is two hours and 53 minutes. Less than three hours of real work out of eight hours in the office.

Think about how much time every day is sucked up by pointless meetings, unproductive emails and phone calls (both work and personal), co-worker discussions and disruptions, preparing and eating lunch and snacks, refilling your coffee mug, reading news websites or catching up on social media, most of which were cited by the surveyed workers as "other activities" they were engaged in during the workday.

The five-day, 40-hour workweek has been the standard in the United States since Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. The law was meant to improve conditions and pay for manufacturing workers, which it did, but that doesn't mean that 40 hours is the absolute minimum for getting work done, especially in the information age.

People in work-centric cultures like the U.S. and Korea spend far more hours at the office than other economically competitive countries. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Americans average 1,786 work hours a year, which is 423 more hours than German workers and over 100 hours more than Japanese workers.

These long hours are taking their toll on workers' health and well-being, and younger workers in particular say they would trade salary for increased flexibility. A 2018 survey by The Workforce Institute found that 45 percent of global workers think it should only take five hours a day to do their job, and 35 percent would take a 20-percent pay cut if they could work one less day a week.

Still, even with the recent landmark study from Microsoft Japan, Barnes says that business executives still balk at making such a major workplace shift.

"If I came to you and said, 'I've got this hotshot process for your engineering process and it will deliver a 40-percent improvement in productivity,' you'd say, 'Tell me about it,'" says Barnes. "But when I come and say, 'I've got this idea for a four-day week,' everybody looks at me like I've got two heads. But what we're actually seeing is material improvements in productivity, lower turnover rates, lower sickness rates, etc."

Implementing a Four-day Workweek

The key to making this work, says Barnes, is to not implement schedule or process changes from the top down.

"You have to give it to the staff," says Barnes, whose book " The 4 Day Week: How the Flexible Work Revolution Can Increase Productivity, Profitability and Wellbeing, and Create a Sustainable Future" is coming out in January 2020. "You have to have the confidence of a leader in those circumstances and say, 'This is about you changing how you work. You tell me how you're going to do it.'

That's just what employees did at two of Perpetual Guardian's smaller branches in the South Island of New Zealand. Each branch had only two employees, so if each worker took a different day off, that would leave only one person in the office two days a week.

"One of the overriding conditions of the four-day week at Perpetual Guardian was that customer service couldn't suffer," says Charlotte Lockhart, a former Perpetual Guardian executive who now runs the 4 Day Week nonprofit. "So, all four workers decided they would buddy up digitally."

Since most customer service requests could be solved over the phone or email, the workers figured out that three of them could cover all the work at both branches while the fourth took his or her day off. It's actually a boon for customers, because now there are three or four people looking after them instead of just two.

"That's a strengthening of our business model that was found by the staff, because they were incentivized to find that solution for themselves," says Lockhart.

Another strategy: Look at some of the current timewasting activities and see how they can be cut down or eliminated. As part of Microsoft Japan's trial, meetings were cut from one hour to 30 minutes and capped at five attendees.

Caveats of the Four-Day Workweek

Critics of the four-day week say that it only applies to white-collar office jobs that are stuck in an outdated nine-to-five, Monday through Friday mindset. But what about retail workers or manufacturing jobs? Don't those industries need bodies on the floor five or even six days a week?

Jody Thompson thinks that we're all focusing on the wrong thing, both the critics and the proponents of a four-day workweek. Thompson is the co-creator, with Cali Ressler, of the Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) system, which shifts the discussion away from work hours and work location and focuses exclusively on results.

In Thompson's opinion, switching from a five-day week to a four-day week is "just moving people from one box to another," a box that is measured in days and hours, not meaningful business results like productivity or customer service.

The ROWE system gives workers full autonomy over their schedules (when and where and how they work) in exchange for full accountability. Managers in the ROWE system are called "results coaches," and they manage the work, not the worker.

"What we're learning through the balance of autonomy and accountability is that people become more productive, they become healthier, and they actually do more for the organization because they don't waste time 'doing time,'" says Thompson. "When you own all your time, you don't want to waste any of it."

When results are king, it doesn't matter if the job is a salaried corporate position or an hourly retail gig. Autonomy empowers employees to come up with ways of working and self-scheduling that maximize the company's goals — whether it's higher profits or greater customer satisfaction — without sacrificing quality of life.

"And if you're a butthead and decide not to show up or come in two hours late without notifying the team, you're a performance problem," says Thompson, "and you'll get fired."

Barnes is bullish about the future of the four-day workweek. The U.K.'s Labour Party has made the 32-hour workweek part of its platform, and the U.S. presidential candidate Andrew Yang is a fan. Barnes said he's been talking with companies from all over the world in every imaginable industry.

"I think we're now at a tipping point," says Barnes. "We've got a long way to go, clearly, but this is a conversation that was nowhere 18 months ago and now it's mainstream."

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