The five-day week (as we know it) began in 1940, when the US 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act imposed a 40-hour work week. Since then not much has changed. However, with reports of up to 63% of workers experiencing burnout on the job, it might be time to reconsider our rigid five-day approach.
The idea of a four-day week has been gaining traction in the business and political spheres over the last few years, with accounts from organizations that have made the switch becoming case studies in The Guardian and NBC News. But what exactly is a four-day working week?
This year especially, as working life has changed enormously due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some are looking to the four-day week as a solution for lockdown, unemployment and more.
And, taking into account conflicting reports of lower productivity and increased employee work-life balance, is a four-day working week something that you should be considering for your business or sales and marketing team?
In this article we’ll go through:
What’s meant by a four-day week?
Despite its usage implying there’s one clear meaning to the term, lack of a clear legal framework means a four-day week can be interpreted in various ways.
US Mattress review site Slumber Yard ran an unsuccessful two-month trial with employees working for ten hours Monday-Thursday, whereas New Zealand estate management company Perpetual Guardian trialed dropping Fridays altogether with no increase in hours, with very different results (as seen in the case study linked above).
Both implementations were technically valid, but the effects on the companies and employees were drastically different.
To make sense of the impact of a four-day week and understand how it could affect your business or your sales organization, we need to look at the primary purpose of introducing a four-day week: improving employee well-being.
A survey conducted by analytics firm Gallup found two-thirds of full-time employees experienced job burnout, with 23% feeling it often or always. Their research showed the effects of burnout meant workers were:
- 63% more likely to take a sick day
- Only 50% as likely to discuss how to approach performance goals with their manager
- 23% more likely to visit the emergency room
- 260% more likely to leave their current employer
- 13% less confident in their performance
According to the American Institute of Stress, 66% of stress comes from managing a work/life balance and an overwhelming workload, with 12% of employees having called in sick due to stress.
The World Health Organisation classified Burnout in its 2019 International Classification of Diseases as an occupational phenomenon, arising from chronic workplace stress that hasn’t been successfully managed, characterized by exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job (or negativity/cynicism relating to it) and reduced professional efficacy.
With burnout and stress having such a negative effect on businesses and their employees, forward-thinking organizations have been searching for ways to improve conditions for their staff without losing productivity—by understanding where the benefits of reduced hours lie, businesses could restructure their working weeks to maintain productivity while increasing employees’ mental health.
How feasible is a four-day working week?
In short, it depends.
There are several examples of the four-day week being successfully implemented, but if your company needs to respond quickly to business opportunities—as is often the case in sales—then losing a fifth day won’t work for you.
Like any major change to your company, you need to understand why you’re making the change, and what the benefits will be.
First, let’s look at some of the success cases where a four-day week has brought positive results to a company:
Following a trial from February-March 2018, Perpetual Guardian made the move to transition its 240 staff to a four-day week the following November, maintaining salaries but cutting employees’ weekly hours from 37.5 to just 30. The trial itself was monitored by academics at the University of Auckland and the Auckland University of Technology, who found the reduced hours saw the following benefits:
- Productivity was unharmed by the reduced working hours
- Staff stress levels were reduced from 45% to 38%
- Employee work-life balance scores increased from 54% to 78%
- Workers’ sense of empowerment and stimulation increased by 20%
- Staff leadership and commitment levels rose by 22% and 20% respectively
Andrew Barnes, CEO of Perpetual Guardian, notes in his book “The Four Day Week” that by making productivity the goal of the trial, Perpetual Guardian was able to focus on delivering results to meet this end:
“I’m a businessman. I want a profitable company. The extraordinary equation of the four-day week is that by putting productivity first, and incentivizing staff to do the same, the value ripples beyond the boardroom and the balance sheet to the home lives and personal wellbeing of workers.
“The prioritization of productivity and the secondary outcome of improved work-life balance come with the unique 100-80-100 equation of the four-day week: we give 100 percent compensation for 80 percent time at work on the condition that 100 percent of agreed productivity is achieved.”
Perpetual Guardian knew the outcomes they wanted from the outset and helped facilitate employees to bring about these changes within the 30-hour working week.
“By challenging the employee to conceive ideas for improvements that will maintain and even raise productivity, the company circumvents obvious issues which would hinder productivity improvement,” says Barnes.
Two of the top recommendations in a paper analyzing the Perpetual Guardian test case were:
- Giving employees time to think about how they could work differently, encouraging them to come up with their own measures of productivity
- Encouraging staff to consider how they could organize time off within teams, while still meeting customer and business imperatives. The communication between management and staff enabled an improved workflow, with both sides benefiting from the arrangement.
UK tech company PPC Protect moved to a Monday-Thursday week in 2018, with the move seeing beneficial results in several areas of its organization:
- Average employee productivity increased, with project management software tracking a 16% speed increase in completing tasks
- Reduced stress and improved happiness among staff
- A boost in job applications to the company, meaning open positions got filled quicker than when on the five-day week
With position applications boosted, Co-founder Neil Andrews comments on the interesting phenomenon:
“Not everyone is motivated by money. And, in fact, having a good work-life balance is often preferred. Since switching to a four-day work week, we’ve had more applicants for our vacancies than ever before, with so much positive feedback on our shorter work week. While I understand this model might not be suitable for every type of business, for anyone in the tech space, I certainly think it will become more and more common.”
In August 2019, the Japanese branch of Microsoft conducted the Work-Life Choice Challenge with its 2,300 employees, to provide a reference for work-style reforms with targeted goals and verified results. Staff were given all Fridays in the month off as paid leave, with Microsoft offering expenses for staff to pursue self-development, meeting with family and social contributions, as part of their For Work, For Life, For Society approach.
As well as reducing the working hours each week, Microsoft had to think creatively in order to keep productivity high. With a 46% increase in meetings capped to 30 minutes, a 21% increase in remote conferencing, and the amount of human resource exchange up by 10%, workers could more effectively manage time to achieve a near 40% increase in sales over the month.
As well as this staggering improvement, Microsoft also saw the following results:
- Number of prints down 58.7% and power consumption down 23.1%
- 92.1% of staff preferring the changes of the four-day week
- 96.5% of staff agreeing that work-life was improved
- 97.1% of staff agreeing that their personal lives had improved
- 83.5% agreeing that they felt more engaged with the wider society
Microsoft’s efforts to not only reduce the hours in the working week but to enable staff to use their Fridays off in productive ways maximized staff’s fulfillment, demonstrating the importance of putting a premium of employee health.
Alabama based organization Aloha Hospitality offers flexible work hours and a four-day week to its management staff, in recognition of the needs and expectations of a millennial workforce. With a working week that takes the growing trend of employees valuing experiences over belongings into account, Aloha Hospitality aims to increase staff retention, increase morale and promote the sense of team ownership.
And with their reduced working week, more management staff are able to be on the restaurant floor at peak hours, meaning even better customer service.
According to Bob Baumhower, “it’s a win-win for not just our team, but our guests. We want our team to be fresh, energized and focused on a legendary guest experience.”
Statistics from 2019 Henley Business School Study
According to the July 2019 study by Henley Business School, a four-day working week could save UK businesses an estimated £104 billion per year by reducing bottom lines through boosted productivity and improved employee health. Surveying organizations who have already adopted a four-day week work scheme, the study found:
- 64% of businesses saw productivity upturns
- 78% of companies reported happier workers, 70% found workers were less stressed, and 62% saw staff taking fewer days off sick.
- 40% of employees said they would use their time off to improve their professional skills
The study also showed an increasing trend of reducing working hours for the same pay, with 34% of business leaders (46% of them in larger businesses) agreeing that making the switch will be instrumental in future success.
Workers are also keen for the change, with 72% backing the four-day week, and with 67% of Gen Z workers saying it would be an important factor in determining who they would work for.
Meanwhile, one estimate suggests that the average US business could save $15,200 a year on facilities if they only used the office for four days of the week.
Philadelphia software company Wildbit has been operating a four-day week since 2017.
By putting an emphasis on employees not working on the weekends or at night, and by giving their workers a flexible work schedule they found that their initial transition over summer went smoothly, but in the fall they realized they needed to spread shifts over the week, with some having Mondays instead of Fridays off, as their clients needed full-week support.
According to Co-founder Natalie Nagele:
“When we reviewed our first year of four-day weeks, we realized we launched more features than the previous year. This surprised us and helped us commit to continuing with the schedule. The real value of a four-day week comes from healthy pressure and forced downtime. Since we know we only have four days to get our work done, we work smarter to avoid distractions and cut through the procrastination [...] and with a three-day weekend, every person is poised to start their work on Monday.”
San Francisco-based company Monograph has implemented a four-day week since its founding. As well as seeing improvements to employee health and concentration, CEO Robert Yuen realized his company’s flexible working conditions made the switch to working from home due to COVID a lot smoother. Writing about his experience, he says:
“It’s not so much about time—it’s about output. So if an employee can successfully handle a sufficient workload in four days, what they might have previously produced in the standard five days—there isn’t a strong enough or necessary argument to get employees to work another eight hours.”
Why it might work for your organization, and why it might not
By looking at the above examples, there’s a common theme of knowing what results an organization wants to achieve before going into a trial or reduced hours work week.
By knowing that the end goal was to improve efficiency and employee health, Perpetual Guardian, PPC Protect and Microsoft Japan were able to tailor their implementation of the four-day week and reduce hours for their working staff with measurable results.
But an arbitrary transition to a four-day working week doesn’t guarantee results—as seen by the Slumber Yard trial, compressing the working week into four ten-hour days actually harmed productivity according to Matthew Ross, co-founder and COO:
“Beyond the initial boost in employee morale, our experience with the four-day work week was generally negative […] in our audit, the first 60 minutes of each day was largely wasted. Since the employees had to arrive earlier, they treated the first hour as their de-facto morning wake-up period. They’d get coffee, chat with co-workers, and surf the internet.”
He also found that the last two hours of each day weren’t productive either, with staff hitting concentration walls and rates of surfing the internet spiking in this window.
Slumber Yard also experienced a higher spend on food and drinks as employees were in the office closer to mealtimes, and after the short-term boost in morale, there were few benefits in the four-day week.
Without clear business goals and an employee-focused approach in how to reduce hours, the four-day week can be even more restrictive than the five-day week, leading to more wasted time as employees hit a concentration and motivation wall.
But for some companies, even with a well thought-out four-day week, cutting out an entire day for the business could compromise their ability to operate long-term. Businesses that provide services dependent on foot traffic or short lead-times won’t be able to condense their work into fewer hours if they depend on a steady stream of sales.
Quick response customer services may find that their ability to provide their service is compromised if clients have to wait over a three-day weekend for solutions. One option here is to stagger employees’ weeks over Monday to Friday, but with the London School of Economics finding little evidence to suggest day-of-the-week productivity fluctuations, organizations will have to take a bespoke approach to how to spread their staff in order to meet client demands.
The State of Utah had to drop its four-day week program, despite having seen productivity increases, employee satisfaction and morale boosts and energy saving costs, as customer annoyance at not being able to access services on Fridays grew unsustainable.
Sales can also suffer from a reduced-working-hour week. Nedalee Thomas, CEO of Chanson Water, says: “it’s always been my dream to have three days off. However, in my industry, which involves sales, technical support and shipping, a four-day work week would mean more staff to cover more hours and cross training.”
Boardgame company Big Potato brought in think-tank Autonomy to help with their February 2019 trial, where each department was able to complete their workloads in shorter time-scales.
The sales team trialed blitzing hours, where the team worked together in calls to hit targets quickly, but head of sales Emily Bond notes, “from a sales perspective, you have one less day a week to be searching out new leads and new customers.” And while the system seems to be working, Bond is yet to put on an out-of-office on Fridays and still responds to urgent requests: “if a client wanted something urgently and they knew I wasn’t in on a Friday, they might go to another company.”
On top of this, while the successful case studies above have noticed a number of benefits from their reduced working hours, we shouldn’t let the numbers fool us—in order for productivity to even be maintained, it needs to be boosted in proportion to the time reduced.
A business looking to go from 40 hours a week to 32 would need to see a 20% increase in productivity to make up for the time lost or else, despite the numerous benefits to staff morale and health, the company will lose revenue.
Not all companies will see the giant productivity increases of Microsoft Japan; Perpetual Guardian found that their overall productivity didn’t drop, but it didn’t increase either—their net benefit was only in effects linked directly to employee health. But they also noted that while overall employee stress and happiness improved, for some teams during the trial stress was actually increased due to tighter deadlines, forcing some employees to break the four-day week work-frame.
Following the trial, they found they would have to make seasonal allowances for extended work hours to make sure work was completed on time, which, while doable, is another unforeseen complication unique to their business.
And perhaps the most problematic issue with the four-day week is in its name—the need for work to be spread over four days. In transitioning away from an arbitrary five-day week, we should know what we want the outcome to be and not be bound by limitations that may constrain our ability to achieve it.
Rather than insist on employees working over four-days, it might be better for businesses to determine the best times of the week for their employees to work, combined with the hours needed to get their job done. Here are some examples of organizations that took different approaches to reduce working hours without the constraints of the four-day week:
SEO-focused organization Cashcow has reduced its working days to six hours, effectively creating a 30-hour, five-day week, but they’ve also made the choice to let employees choose which hours they work each day. The company has completely moved to remote working, giving its staff a huge amount of flexibility.
Benefits have included industry award nominations, large growth to hit additional markets (made easier through short recruitment periods as excellent candidates are attracted by the shorter workdays) and retention of talent, as the shorter hours mean lifestyle changes are easier to facilitate and work around.
Marketing Director Antti Alatalo notes that the move to increasing staff flexibility was born out of frustration at the rigid work conditions employees had faced at previous companies:
“[It] made no sense to us for a long time. We believe that working shorter stints improves productivity and efficiency as it’s incredibly difficult to stay focused for such a long duration. Also, we’ve personally been in situations where we weren’t allowed to start late or even work the full day at home, which has proved to be inconvenient, frustrating, and unnecessary. Therefore, we decided to turn it all on its head, and we’ve reaped the rewards.”
By adapting the five-day week to reduce hours, allowing employees the flexibility to work around their personal commitments by giving them the power to choose their hours and work remotely, not only do their workers benefit from the same health benefits as a four-day week, but they’re also empowered to maintain a fulfilling life outside of work, which feeds back into company via loyalty, staff retention and shorter recruitment periods. According to Alatalo, “our unique approach to work gives us the competitive advantage over our peers in the industry.”
Digital agency Exposure Ninja also places flexibility above rigidity. As well as the whole team working remotely, staff are able to choose their hours depending on their preference. Founder Tim Cameron-Kitchen explains, “our official guidelines on working hours are that employees must be available for at least two hours in the UK workday for four days per week.”
With this soft four-day week strategy, employees are able to work around personal commitments, as well as choose the length of working day they prefer. Some staff choose to condense their week for the three-day weekend while others choose to spread their hours—the beauty of this flexible approach is workers choose the hours they feel most productive, with no conflict between staff who may prefer one structure over another.
And the results have been impressive: Exposure Ninja reports a 50% productivity boost since implementing their work arrangements and becoming a remote company. The only reason they haven’t made the four-day week official is because they value giving employees the freedom to choose their workloads, trusting them to understand the best way to manage their workloads.
Pros and cons of the four-day week
Having determined what a four-day week is and seen examples of how organizations have implemented different versions of it, here’s a summary of the pros and cons of the four-day week.
How could automation and efficiency improvements increase productivity?
We’ve seen that worker burnout is an enormous problem for businesses, but introducing automation without letting employees see the benefits of the reduced labor may only perpetuate the issue.
The reason businesses are becoming more and more interested in the four-day week is because of the positive impact worker health brings to a company—and in this time of robotics and A.I. automation, why not let these new technologies enable you to reduce your working hours with no loss in productivity?
Automation is affordable now, with many solutions available to even the smallest of businesses—Pipedrive’s own cloud CRM platform integrates with a large number of automation focused products to save time taken performing repetitive tasks, freeing up staff to focus on more important matters.
But as well as looking to automation to improve save time while also improving productivity, we also need to question our traditional work methods and find creative solutions to manage our time more effectively.
Microsoft Japan made inroads by capping 46% more of its meetings at 30 minutes. Exposure Ninja and Cashcow LTD found by working remotely, employees were better able to manage their time, and therefore their productivity.
The shift towards remote working in response to COVID-19 has also highlighted the viability and effectiveness of flexible working weeks, with staff more empowered to work in the way that suits them best. Jo Wimble-Groves, co-owner of Active Digital, says that for many, working remotely has had similar effects to reduced working hours:
“Friends I have spoken to say they are actually working harder. Some say they are more productive as they’re taking more breaks from their screens. Many are getting more exercise outside, which in turn is improving their overall health. Working full-time, I have never spent so much time with my own children. Now we take time to go for a family walk every day—even if it’s only for 20 minutes.”
With many organizations already using collaborative cloud-based solutions to allow them to work on the same documents and project simultaneously, and hosting virtual meetings over the web, much of the infrastructure for allowing remote work and automation is already in place.
While cutting down on travel, accommodation and hospitality costs, remote work also eliminates travel time, both to work and between meetings, meaning the barriers to being on time are vastly reduced; the more you can leverage advances in technology to reduce the downtime in between which productive work can be done, the more time you will save, either for your company or your employees—a win-win situation.
With third-party integrations on popular cloud platforms ready to be installed, using new technology to enhance productivity has never been easier.
How to implement a four-day week
If the idea of increased employee health and a possible increase in productivity pique your interest, or you’re already sold on the idea, then here are our top tips for learning more about how to implement a four-day working week:
- Learn from those who have already gone through the transition process. We recommend looking through the paper put together analyzing the Perpetual Guardian experience (linked above), which has a plethora of advice and guidelines for those wanting to make the move
- Check out sites such as 4dayweek.com, which offer tips, articles, podcasts and more around the topic
- Research articles focusing on successful ways to manage a transition to a four-day week, such as SHRM.org
- If you’re an employee looking to propose a four-day week, then we suggest using this guide to help make a persuasive argument to your manager.
Businesses are having to respond to the increased concerns over employee health or else risk the costs associated with stress and burnout.
To compete with organizations that have leveraged staff health to improve retention, recruitment and productivity, companies will have to find their own ways of giving workers the flexibility they need.
Whether or not a four-day week is the solution your organization needs to remain competitive is something only a deep understanding of your business can provide, but a discussion over flexible and reduced working hours is becoming more and more important—and more viable—in this age of technological revolution.