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Behind the 4-Day Work Week Hype

The idea of a 4-day work week is gaining greater traction in North America, as more companies begin to experiment with flexible schedules. Europe has led the charge in this area, and has historically has expected less in terms of work hours for employees - including longer lunches or siestas, and significantly more paid vacation leave.

In this article we'll explore the pros and cons of a four day work week, and highlight what you need to know before you jump on the bandwagon.

Know This First

First things first: before you decide on a 4-day work week, know this: there are two different types of 4 day work weeks that people are talking about.

One is about cramming five days of working hours into four, so that you might work four, ten-hour days instead of five, eight-hour days. This is actually a compressed work week. Many employers already do this, or variations of it, and it is an alternate schedule from the regular 9 -5, Monday to Friday one.

The other is a true, 4-day work week, which is about working reduced hours and being paid the same as if you worked five days. It's reimagining what 'full-time' really is, and recognizing that full-time doesn't need to be 40 or 37.5 or 35 hours per week; it can be 32, or 30, or even 28, while still maintaining full-time wages and benefits.

Be sure you and your employees are talking about the SAME 4-day work week approach!

Work Has Evolved

The concept of full-time work hours has evolved significantly over the centuries, with major shifts occurring in how people work, how long they work, and how they are compensated for their labor. In 2021, The Economist was asking if the future of work was the 4 day work week.

The Industrial Revolution brought huge changes to work hours, moving mostly agricultural workers to factories with an expectation that they work long hours, often up to 12 - 16 hours a day, six days a week. This was necessary to meet the demands of production and to maximize profits.

Changes in worker's rights brought in better working conditions, including shorter work hours and better pay. The eight-hour workday became the norm, as did the Monday - Friday schedule. We are now at the cusp of another worker's revolution of sorts: the one that has more people working from home, one that has them working shorter hours.

Productivity is a First Consideration

Productivity is at the center of any 4-day work week discussion. How will productivity be impacted? Will there be less 'work' since there are less hours? Doubtful. A study by Stanford University actually found that worker productivity decreases the more they work. While this study focused on 60 hour weeks vs 40 hour weeks, the same argument could be made in a compressed work week - more than eight hours in a day, and work quality declines. Some of the world's most productive countries work, on average, 28 hours a week while Japan - a notoriously overworked society - falls far down on the list of countries for productivity.

Of course, productivity is measured in output, and there are some outputs that are at a set pace - think the usual 'widget' output - and others that are more people-driven. More hours do not equal more productivity - they simply equal more hours. Productivity is a result of many different factors, a major one being employee happiness. The other is minimizing distractions.

Other Considerations

  • Certain roles may not be suitable for a 4-day work week. Consider those that require round-the-clock coverage, or are customer facing.

  • Employee preferences are paramount. Some individuals prefer a regular 5-day work week, and it's important to discuss options with individuals.

  • Employee performance is a key consideration: if they aren't performing well currently, how will that improve if they move to a 4-day work week? It may improve, but it may get worse depending on the employees.

  • Team dynamics need to be considered. Will the whole team move to a new schedule, or only some? How will collaboration be impacted?

  • Increased costs to the employer may crop up in terms of additional staffing costs to cover now vacant shifts. On the positive side, cost savings may appear due to reduced absenteeism or staff turnover.

The Pros of a 4-Day Work Week

The drive towards a shorter work week is truly to gain a greater work-life balance. An additional day off each week allows individuals to better balance their work and personal lives and leads to improved mental and physical health. But there are other benefits as well:

  • Increased productivity - Yes! Reduce distractions (read 'unnecessary meetings') and let your team get to work.

  • Improved Engagement and Morale - It's a definite perk to be able to work a 4-day work week, and can be used to not only retain your staff, but attract new hires as well.

  • Reduced absenteeism - more personal time means more time to focus on their health and to tend to personal appointments. Higher levels of engagement also lead to reduced absenteeism.

  • Environmental impact: less commuting = less carbon emissions. This is a neutral point if your team is fully remote.

Implementing a 4-day work week can provide numerous benefits for both employees and organizations. It's essential, however, that companies understand the implications of such a change - job requirements, applicability, condensed vs reduced hours, employee preferences, team dynamics, and cost to employer. If well thought out, and well communicated, implementing a 4-day work week can help you reap the benefits of a happier and healthier workforce.


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