The 5-day, 40-hour work week has been the standard for most American employees since the Fair Labor Standards Act passed in 1938. While productivity has dramatically changed in the nearly a century since the FLSA became law, the typical work week has not. However, spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic and The Great Resignation, there is a new national conversation focused on reducing employee burnout and reexamining the structure of American work. This movement has led to a seemingly radical proposal, the 4-day work week.
Even members of Congress are beginning to push for a shorter work week, but the 4-day work week isn’t a new idea. It’s already become a staple in countries like Iceland, and governments and individual employers around the world have experimented with it for years to different levels of success. So in this blog we’ll explain what the 4-day work week is, the potential pros and cons, and some of the employers around the United States who are experimenting with it already.
The 4-Day Work Week Explained
Defining the 4-day work week isn’t quite as simple as it sounds. In some instances, usually salaried “white collar” jobs, the 4-day work week is as simple as chopping off 1 workday each week and having employees work 32 hours instead of 40. The thought process, essentially, is what’s known as Parkinson’s law: "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion." Put another way, happier employees can accomplish in 32 hours what takes unhappy employees 40 hours.
For other companies/industries where 40 hours of work are still necessary, a 4-day work week adds 2 extra hours to each day in exchange for an additional day off. You would typically see this version of a shortened work week for hourly positions or “blue collar” industries where employers do not want to pay the same wage for less work. The 4-day/40 hour week is still favorable over the standard 5-day week for many workers. According to some surveys, 2/3 of Americans would prefer working 4 10-hour days instead of working 5 8-hour days.
The 4-Day Work Week in Practice
The 32 hour/4-day work week is becoming increasingly popular in parts of Europe, including in Spain where the government has set up a 3-year trial period. During the trial period the Spanish government will subsidize wages for companies interested in trying out a shortened work week. Some American companies like Kickstarter have agreed to make the switch next year as well. The hope is that productivity will remain the same (or improve) as employee morale and retention will increase and overhead costs like electricity decrease. As we’ve discussed before, employee retention is increasingly difficult following the pandemic as 52% of employees feel “burned out” by their current jobs.
Companies like Buffer – an 85 employee, fully remote company that specializes in Social Media management -- experimented with the 32 hour/4-day work week early in 2020. Their internal surveys during their initial 6-month trial period found that nearly 34% of their employees felt more productive working 4 days per week. 60% of employees felt equally productive as when they were working 5-day weeks and only 7% felt less productive. Management at Buffer reported “significant” increases in output over the 6-month trial as well and at the conclusion of the trial Buffer decided to make the 4-day work week the standard across the company. Similarly, Minimal, a Chicago-based design firm, reported having one of their best years ever after switching to the 4-day work week in 2020, despite the pandemic’s impact. Larger companies have also found success in experimenting with the 4-day work week. Microsoft did a trial for a shortened work week in Japan and reported a 40% boost in productivity.
How can employees be more productive in less time? Typically, with fewer hours to work many companies and employees find small ways to be more efficient during working hours. This can include cutting down on time spent in meetings or requiring certain hours be meeting-free, reducing external distractions like social media or idle chatter, and using real-time chat apps like Slack or Teams instead of emails.
As successful as Buffer’s trial of the 4-day work week was, they did also report that their customer-facing teams had “a harder time maintaining productivity levels” due to the shift. And customers ultimately did have increased wait times for responses. With employees each having 1 less day to work it can be difficult to schedule them across typical business hours without having some negative impact on customer service or taking on extra costs to hire more employees. As an example, the state of Utah attempted a 40-hour/4-day work week for state employees over a decade ago but eventually abandoned the idea in 2011 after complaints of worse customer service and a failure to reduce costs.
An additional drawback of the 40 hour/4-day work week, at least for now, is that the rest of the economy overwhelmingly revolves around a 5-day week. Without a shift across the entire economy to accommodate people working 10 hours a day it may actually become more difficult to balance work and life, not less. For example, many childcare facilities cater to a 9am to 5pm work schedule. Unless they open 2 hours earlier or stay open 2 hours later, finding childcare may be difficult for parents working a 40 hour/4-day week. Additionally, while the benefit of an extra day off is enticing, the concern is that working longer days will be more mentally stressful and physically draining for employees.
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the best type of work week for every company, and that is why it’s so important for employers to experiment with the practice where they can. For every failure like Utah’s 4-day work week you can easily find a success story like Buffer. It is crucial to work with your employees to find what is best for their productivity and work-life balance.
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