Looking at some headlines lately, it seems like various companies, and even entire countries (!) are moving to a 4-day workweek.
With the workforce having a need and desire for more free time, or better said, time to spend for rest, family, exercise, and other interests, the 4-day workweek looks like a life-changing promise for a better society.
Not surprisingly, I see people cheering and welcoming this as the next revolution after remote working.
The more I come across these publications I feel these kinds of headlines are creating a momentum that makes more and more people challenge their employers to trial a 4 workweek as well.
For sure I know some HR Leaders who are exploring this concept right now as a possible way forward for their company.
With Hello Monday Club we are always interested in better, new ways of working. Over the years, we have been talking about shorter workweeks, compressed workdays, flexible working, remote working, unlimited holidays, a-synchronous working and much much more.
We also are always keenly aware that what organizations, employees (well, people) and society need should all be aligned to truly lead us to a better society.
And while no company can stand still and NOT move forward, we want companies not only to take the next decision but the RIGHT decision.
So we have been diving into the 4-day workweek lately (see Youtube video below for our Live Chat around this topic) and in this article, I want to share some of the learning from our research and discussions within our network that we think would be really helpful.
Watch our live discussion about ‘the 4-day workweek, the way to go, or no” on YOUTUBE
I will give you an overview of what is considered a 4-day workweek, what is really happening in the countries or companies from these headlines and what the statuses of different trials are.
I also give you an overview of the downsides and why I think this is a structure that can benefit some, but not all companies or employees. At Hello Monday we believe that we, overall, will (and should!) work less over the next decade, however, we doubt this particular 4-day pattern will become the default working structure defining society as the 5-day workweek has been the past 100 years.
The Current Working Pattern
To understand why the 4-day workweek is even a thing we need to start with why a 5-day workweek is a thing. The answer is it’s actually pretty recent – you can check out this article where I discuss other, very old, work patterns. Until relatively recently the pattern was what I call a Christian-agrarian pattern – that is you need to work most of the time if you are tending to field and livestock but you take 1 day off (Sunday) in the Christian world. In other words a 6-day workweek.
It wasn’t until the early 20th century that Henry Ford popularized the 5 day work week – he noticed that the extra day of rest led to more productivity (as there was no more than 8 hours work on these 5 days). Unsurprisingly even then, it wasn’t long before people started to wonder what would happen with another day off.
In addition to Henry Ford setting the standard in the West, it was self-reinforcing because organisations and leaders liked that they could plan for their workforce to be in the same place at the same time 5 days in a row and then employees liked getting the same two days off at the weekend – including the day to attend Church. Leaders loved it and that love of being able to control workers to this day, remains. That might seem deeply cynical but the call back to the workplace from remote working seems to come from leaders and does not reflect the complex sentiment of employees.
So what is happening?
It’s already changing
This is connected to my later criticism of the 4-day workweek but whilst the overriding rhetoric seems to be about ‘mass conversion’ of the workforce to 4-days, we won’t be converting entire companies or nations from a 5-day week, because they aren’t all working 5 days at the moment.
My wife for example, like many, already works a 4-day week albeit on part-time pay and as of 2019 31.2 million women and 9.5 million men in Europe currently work part-time (about 20% of the working population).
Perhaps it’s not surprising then that a survey in the UK (and there is no reason to believe this is much different in other countries) from before the pandemic shows that (even then) only 6% of the adult population is working a typical 9-5.
In other words, we have already moved away from the 9-5 with many developed countries protecting the right to request flexible working in law.
More recently a LinkedIn study found that 30% of working professionals with school-aged children at home right now feel they do not have the necessary childcare available to return to work in the office full-time. This is certainly reflected in the Hello Monday community where we hear people are juggling and renegotiating (with employers and partners) almost on a weekly basis.
It’s reasonable to assume that with a general shift towards more working from home people will also be able to be more flexible with their timings in general because they have gained commuting time back and are managing the logistics of employment differently.
So perhaps the 4-day workweek isn’t quite the ‘slam dunk’ it would have been with employees say, 10 years ago.
What does a 4-day workweek conversion look like?
It’s important to be clear what we actually mean when we say ‘moving to a 4-day week’ in these headlines and trials – what does that look like?
- It is not a pay reduction – it’s assumed that this is about productivity and therefore no pay cut
- It assumes we are talking current working pattern of 5 days for the existing workforce
- It could be any day that isn’t worked but typically it seems to be a Friday
- It is some sort of unilateral decision – we aren’t talking about individual circumstances (and Kudos to anyone who thinks they negotiate by themselves to work a day less and still get the same pay)
- It isn’t about a truncated week (i .e. longer days) these are basically the same length of working days.
Who is doing it?
Even though we are seeing a resurgence of the 4-day work week in the media, it isn’t entirely new. Below is a timeline of the various large-scale trials that have happened, or are happening.
We could also talk about Belgium (which many people are) but this doesn’t meet our criteria because they are entrenching in law the right to a compressed week, i.e. 4 longer working days.
Spain technically hasn’t completed the trial and the ‘English Speaking’ experiment – named by me because that’s how it seems – will conclude later in the summer.
The sum total of the findings is that, as the early proponent extrapolated from Henry Ford’s findings of a 5-day week, more rest = more productive.
The reasoning for even shorter workweeks makes sense, since we now talk about a highly-skilled workforce of knowledge workers operating in a more complex society and with different demands when it comes to activities outside work.
Of course, there is no consistency in how this increase in productivity is measured across these different experiments but the reports are between 5-40% productivity boost. To ‘break even’ you are looking for a gain of 20%(ish) in productivity but there are other benefits in terms of saved cost (not opening up the office for one day a week, employee engagement etc.).
On a much smaller scale, and with more idiosyncratic benefits, there are a number of start-up and scale-up companies trialling or having implemented a 4-day week and making it work.
Why it won’t work at scale
So the companies and countries above seem to have experienced a really successful implementation – why would I be suggesting it won’t work? At least, not at scale?
Some of the issues are very neatly described by this small media company that tried it in the UK. I link to them because often people think with these alternative ways of working that small companies find it easier. What the research shows, despite 4-day workweeks overall being a resounding success is:
- It’s too rigid. Ironic this should come about at the tail end of the pandemic because people on the whole have more flexibility than ever. What about if I want to work 5 days but only 6 hours?
- It will always have ‘losers’ the people that need to be in the shop/on the production line/on the phone line 6 days a week. Unless you come up with a creative way to compensate them which means …
- It’s very complex – how do you treat the people doing 4 day weeks already – offer them more pay, another day off, shorter days…? What about other working patterns? Remember just before the pandemic only 6% of the workforce had a typical ‘9-5 x 5’ pattern
- People don’t really want it – they want more flexibility/life and so compared to a 5-day week 4 days seems great – but it will very quickly get challenged by those that need/want something different.
- It doesn’t give you more time with kids – in some European countries where schools finish early on some days a different working pattern, with e.g. Wednesdays off, might help but for many a 4-day week is much less desirable than more holiday.
- You may end up increasing presenteeism bias when combined with WFH if your culture isn’t ready and …
- In order to reap all the benefits, you need a shift of culture – the rigidity of this will work on more traditional cultures as a ‘good first step’ but if the culture doesn’t shift it will just become a ‘working from home day’
I haven’t seen all these drawbacks in one place anywhere so I hope this helps you, dear reader, with your thinking. It might also seem that I am completely against a 4-day week and I‘m not.
Why you might want to do it anyway
It actually can work where rigidity and structure are essential and you can get the right behaviour shift at the same time. There just happen to be much better ways of giving more time back to your employees. These drawbacks shouldn’t be used as a reason not to do anything (I have seen this) because the 4-day week is better than 5 days – which isn’t saying much but it is saying something.
The move to a 4-day week could be the right way to take a step in the right direction, especially where features of the work undertaken by the organisation mean that complete flexibility and control aren’t possible.
As someone who used to work in the rail industry, there are examples of very progressive working patterns for train drivers and other safety-critical staff. This works because the industry is high unionised (and so tends to only come to ‘collective’ deals) the wellbeing (how well-rested they are) of the employee has safety implications, and a train driver can’t just decide to have a ‘duvet day’ without serious complications.
In these kinds of ‘critical availability’ roles, they often have a rota that includes working weekends but often only working 8 days out of 14 for example (an 8-day fortnight, if you will) and along with pay well above the average its no wonder that these roles are highly sought after.
So if something about the organisation and its work means that individualised, employee-defined flexibility isn’t an option, or is a step too far, structured working patterns that give employees more life outside work might just hold the solution.
A 4 day work week is not our new society
These headlines, however appealing to our need for more free time, are giving us the impression that entire countries are moving towards a 4-day workweek and therefore will change our lives and society to the extent that the 5-day workweek did. In reality, it is often limited experiments that get watered down after the trial ends and often only specific government departments are presented as wholesale moves for entire countries.
Remember the 5-day workweek defined not only our work, but also our free time during the 20th century: Mon-Fri is for work, Saturday for sports, running errands, washing the car and mowing the lawn, Sunday for Church and family.
Should a country or society adapt to a 4-day workweek, they will recreate something similar. Close to that is the UAE, where we can expect a larger scale societal shift while they adapt to the new weekly structure as a country.
However, these kinds of society-wide adoptions will not lead us towards a truly global, flexible, resilient, innovative, autonomous, inclusive and happy workforce – which we at Hello Monday think is the way forward in this new century.
Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash
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