So crazy, it just might work: A skeptic's guide to the 4-day workweek

Individual sitting outside home on patio enjoying the sun.

Thank god it’s Thursday! Said nobody, ever. But more and more, the working world is experimenting with an idea that would have seemed insane not too long ago: the 4-day workweek. After decades of technology-driven increases to worker productivity, and with a growing demand for flexible work policies in a competitive job market, there is a growing appetite by business and government leaders to entertain the previously unthinkable. And while ‘TGIT’ may not have the same ring to it, there is a growing body of data that suggests the 4-day workweek might not be so crazy after all.

How does the 4-day workweek, work?

On its face it's pretty simple: It's working four days out of seven instead of five days out of seven. Seems pretty intuitive, right? But when it comes to locations, days, and corporate goals, the equations become more complex. Dr. Rita Fontinha, Associate Professor of International Business and Strategy at the Henley Business School in the UK, has been studying the pros and cons of the four-day workweek and attitudes in business towards the idea. A psychologist by training, much of her work centers on understanding how changes in the way we work will impact workers and the business world. Dr. Fontinha says that the crucial thing to remember about the four-day week is that it’s not working faster or for less pay. It’s a reduction of hours. “We are not talking about compressed working hours. We are talking about four days, same schedule, with no loss of pay.”

Many countries and companies have tried experiments with a four-day work week. One of the most well-publicized is Iceland. Between 2015 and 2019 about 1% of Icelandic workers participated in a trial run by the Reykjavík City Council where they simply worked shorter hours for the same amount of pay. According to the BBC, the researchers involved felt incredibly positive about the results. "This study shows that the world's largest ever trial of a shorter working week in the public sector was by all measures an overwhelming success.” If it’s so great, why aren’t we all doing it right now?

Doing more with less?

Let’s take a look at the pros and cons. In general, the reported benefits of a four-day workweek for employees include less stress and a better work-life balance. One drawback is that your tasks are compressed into less time. For employers the difficulties mainly center around initial costs and logistical complexity. If you have people working fewer hours you need to have more people doing the same jobs. Simply put, it means you need a larger staff to get the same amount of work done than you would with a five-day work week. For organizations that have a lot of customer interaction like hospitality or healthcare, this can be hard. However, many experiments show that the long-term benefits for employers in terms of attraction, retention, and good health of employees outweigh the short-term costs. In fact, the most interesting, and counterintuitive, results from many of these experiments have to do with productivity. When Microsoft tried a four-day workweek in Japan, they reported that productivity was boosted by 40%. Fontinha’s latest survey research supports that finding :64% of employers that are already offering a four-day week reported to her team that they have seen an improvement in productivity.

Fontinha says we get that result because when time is scarce, people become better at managing it. “People are not taking unnecessary meetings and not attending them, and they are just being more productive overall in terms of time management and better mental health and creativity.”

The 4-day workweek and flexible work

It sounds like a cure-all for what ails the corporate world, but how does it hold up in our hybrid and remote work reality? Fontinha says that will take reevaluating our ideas around priorities, productivity, and presenteeism. “Being in a place does not necessarily mean being productive at the tasks that take place there.” Thinking about what work is best done where, especially when time is limited, is key.

When thinking about working fewer hours regardless of location, prioritizing what tasks are done at what time becomes even more important. Creating space for tasks that are best done alone is important to make time and room for tasks that involve creativity or collaboration, to be done in a group setting when everyone is together physically. Fontinha notes that in-person work is particularly crucial for those entering a new position, as networks are harder to form remotely.

When not tied to a physical location, making sure work is eventually laid aside is also important. Fontinha says that during the pandemic, surveys have charted an increase in the number of hours people work. So when thinking about working remotely or in a hybrid schedule, organizations need to really pay attention to “workweek creep,” like when Steve sends that evening email during off hours and you feel guilty for sitting down to dinner.

At the core, it’s about autonomy

Ultimately, regardless of where work hours are spent and how many of them there are, Fontinha says the core of these ideas is about autonomy and control over one’s working life. “It's not just about the number of hours worked, but it's also the idea that people want autonomy, they want control over their time, and they want that flexibility to be able to produce when they're being more productive.”

Moving from a five-day workweek to a four-day workweek can take a lot of, well . . . work. But the results from recent experiments are compelling, perhaps even more so as work becomes more flexible. Who knows? TGIT may have a certain ring to it after all.