The 4-day week: panacea or pariah?

Nov 02, 2022

7 mins

The 4-day week: panacea or pariah?
Lorraine Posthuma

Freelance translator and journalist

What happened in the White House when Ronald Reagan was president? Well, for starters, there were tax cuts, the Reagan Revolution, and the beginning of the end of the Cold War. There were a lot of late nights too. That may be because Reagan’s budget director Dick Darman used to leave his suit jacket on the back of his chair when he left the office. Staffers, seeing the jacket, thought he was still in the building and still working and that they should follow suit. The long-hours culture may not have started in the White House, but it has become the norm. Now all that may be changing.

Trending: the 4-day workweek

We live in a culture that praises side hustles, technology, and long hours, but that’s changing. Employees want a better work-life balance, to disconnect when off the clock, and the chance to enjoy a shorter week at work. The 4-day workweek is a hot topic around the western world. In April 2022, 38 companies in the US started a trial period of a 4-day workweek, and in June the UK launched a 4-day workweek trial with 70 companies and 3,000 employees taking part in a six-month test run.

Many of us have heard the enticing aspects of shorter workweeks such as boosted productivity, increased staff retention, and reduced operating costs. But it’s not all about happier staffers luxuriating in all that free time. The truth is, it doesn’t always work out. So we took a look at what happens when the short week goes wrong.

1. Not all companies can do it

Yarno, a gamified learning platform and startup in Australia experimented with a 4-day workweek for two years. By the end, the company decided to return to a five-day, 40-hour week. In a blog post from 2019 on the company website, managing director Lachy Gray writes, “In hindsight there’s a big difference between Fridays off at a mature, established business, and Fridays off at a fledgling startup.” Gray notes that in the three years before starting Yarno, he had worked four days a week – and loved it. Crucially, however, he did 40 hours over those four days, which adds up to 10 hours a day. At Yarno, he hoped that everyone could take Fridays off. Right from the outset things didn’t go to plan. “On Fridays we were liaising with clients, taking any meetings we could. We were a startup, trying to find our feet. The day off felt like a luxury that we couldn’t afford,” he explains. It was frustrating for everyone. “The whole point of working four days was to energize and motivate the team. And unfortunately, despite our best intentions, I felt it had the opposite effect,” he writes. That was in 2019 and, even though the company has embraced flexible and remote working, it hasn’t gone back to a 4-day workweek yet.

Phil McParlane, the founder of 4 day week, a website developed to help employees and companies to embrace this way of working, says it is not unusual. “This is a concern I’ve heard before,” he says. McParlane’s business gives job seekers access to a list of companies and positions that offer 4-day workweeks.

McParlane says, “One of the hardest things to do as a startup is recruitment.” They cannot compete on salary with tech companies such as Facebook, Apple, or Netflix so that’s why some startups offer a 4-day workweek. It can be hard to make it work, however.

2. Opportunities may be missed

A shorter week isn’t a fit for every role. If a sales team works 32 hours rather than 40, for example, they may be talking to fewer clients and closing fewer deals. Four days easily can turn into five – unofficially. As Lindsay Tjepkema, the chief executive and co-founder of Casted, wrote in an article for Forbes, “They’re going to take that call, answer that email and solve that problem five days a week.” She believes flexibility, not Fridays off, answers employees’ increasing need for work-life balance.

Jennifer Borda, a professor of communication at the University of New Hampshire and an expert in work-life balance, agrees. “Cramming five days into four doesn’t work well,” she says. This causes more stress. Companies need to set boundaries and stick to them, she adds, as it won’t work if managers are telling their employees to take Mondays off but they don’t do so too. If a work email pops up on a no-work Monday, the employee will feel pressured to answer it. As a solution to this, some companies have implemented a flexible w-day wokweek rather than a mandatory 4-day workweek.

While it might sound like productivity decreases for those working four days, that’s not the case. In fact “intellectual capital has increased,” Borda says. Employees find they have more to give in four days because they’ve had adequate rest and self-care during their three off days. They’re prepared for work, and they have the mental capacity and motivation to dream big, be creative, and perform better at work.

McParlane says, “When work is squeezed from five days into four, people are more strict about time. They actually get more done in four days than in five because they’re rested and perform better.” McParlane says sales teams are becoming more tech-savvy. They send automated emails and use other solutions to increase engagement as they work fewer hours. This all helps productivity.

3. There’s a lot of playing catch up

After conducting a 10-week trial at Alter Agents, a marketing research firm based in LA, Rebecca Brooks, the chief executive, decided to go back to a five-day week. By the end of the trial, employee satisfaction had decreased and stress had increased – even though the shorter week was supposed to have the opposite effect. Her team felt that they were playing catch up every week.

The trial had one advantage: it highlighted to Brooks that the company needed more staff. Alter Agents now has 33 employees up from 16 in July 2021 – and Brooks says her company is performing better too.

Maintaining employee satisfaction and well-being is vital. Brooks says that top talent want remote work, flexibility, and shorter work weeks – and she believes it’s the way of the future. “The 4-day workweek is not a luxury or a perk, it will be required in the future,” she says.

Brooks compares learning how to implement the 4-day wokweek to learning a sport. “We have to start over and there’s a lot of experimenting,” she says. “You’re not great at a new sport at first. It takes time and practice to develop skills and perform well.” She recognizes that companies, including hers, need time to implement a shorter week well. There’s a learning curve and improvement comes through trial and error and employee feedback.

“Covid showed us a lot of our systems were broken,” Brooks says. “We realized we could work remotely, take sufficient breaks, and be more productive in fewer hours.” Now Alter Agents staff get one extra day off per month, instead of four – and employees are happier. They feel free to take the day off. Brooks would like to conduct another 4-day workweek trial in 2023. She thinks the results will be more positive the next time.

4. Customers expect service five days a week

Tech companies might thrive with no-work Fridays, but businesses that focus primarily on customer service may find that their teams need to be available every day of the week. Goosechase, which creates interactive experiences for communities, says customer support is essential to its business five days a week. So the company realized it wasn’t possible for everyone on all its teams to take Fridays off. It solved the problem by operating a staggered schedule. Now the customer experience team uses a system whereby everyone gets a day off every week – it’s just not the same day for everyone. The team is still answering phones and talking to customers five days a week.

How to make it work

Set out the rules

Borda says, “Companies need to set clear parameters before shifting to a 4-day workweek.” Will everyone in the organization take Friday off or will some employees work staggered schedules? Are employees working a 4-day workweek with a strict 32 hours? Or do they need to work more hours if goals and deadlines aren’t being met? Setting clear boundaries and giving employees realistic expectations will provide a smoother transition.

Modify schedules

Some companies schedule staggered days off because not everyone in these organizations can take the same day off. Certain teams need to be represented five days a week. McParlane says this isn’t usually a source of tension or conflict. He says, “You know, most people are just happy to work four days a week, they don’t care which day they have off.”

Transition slowly

Borda advises businesses to begin gradually. It’s better to take one or two Fridays off per month in the beginning. Then evaluate. How’s it going so far with one or two days off a month? If employees are happy and productivity is stable, then experiment with three to four days off per month. If one day off per month is working well, but more days off are too difficult, as was the case for Brooks and Alter Agents, then stick to one day off. Borda encourages companies “to solicit feedback from employees in the form of surveys and focus groups to enhance the 4-day workweek.” Find out what’s working and what isn’t.

Just a trend or here to stay?

The 4-day workweek is a relatively new concept, so we don’t know yet how well it will work in the long term – or whether it is here to stay. But we do know that 78% of employers operating this way report that their employees are happier, more productive and motivated. So far, company performance remains the same or has even increased because of the switch.

McParlane says, “Many companies have switched to a 4-day workweek, and out of the ones I can think of, just one or two went back to working five days a week.” He says people are happier working one day less and productivity is the same or better. The only way to be sure how well it works is to give it a go. It sounds like more fun than leaving jackets draped on chairs while pretending to work into the night.

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