Germany trials the four-day workweek: “Free time is invaluable”

Jun 10, 2024

5 mins

Germany trials the four-day workweek: “Free time is invaluable”

In February, over 30 German companies began trialing the four-day workweek for six months with over 1,000 employees taking part. The initiative has been led by the NGO 4 Day Week Global and the HR consultancy firm Intraprenör in partnership with the University of Münster. The largest European experiment of its kind, the trial has reached its halfway point, and learnings are emerging.

“I’ve always been a sci-fi fan. When I was a kid, I would watch Captain Kirk commandeering a spaceship. We often talk about the technical aspect of sci-fi, but it also describes the social progress that needs to be achieved.” Tom Jaeger, CEO of Jaeger Orthopedics, is as enthusiastic about Star Trek as he is about the prosthetics manufactured by his company, which has a workforce of over 30 employees.

However, lying behind all this enthusiasm is a crude reality: hiring in his sector is difficult, especially when it comes to technical positions such as engineers and supervisors. “For four or five years now, my job postings haven’t received any applications. We have to constantly work with schools to sell ourselves as employers,” says Jaeger.

The four-day workweek: Hope for the German economy

At the start of 2024, IFO, the German research institute, estimated that over 36% of German companies were experiencing a shortage of skilled workers. Having gone into recession in 2023, Europe’s economic powerhouse is looking for solutions to make employment more attractive, especially in the industrial sector, which the country has historically excelled at. It’s for this reason that Intraprenör, a small HR consultancy firm, went knocking on the door of 4 Day Week Global, whose successful trial involving 60 companies in the UK garnered much attention last year.

“Our company has been working four days a week for the past eight years now. We know from experience that it’s feasible,” says Jan Bühren, research lead at Intraprenör. “We felt it was the right time to launch a trial in Germany. The economic situation is causing concern. Working less may seem contradictory, but our view is to experiment, and to make decisions once the results are in.”

Compounding Germany’s recruitment challenges is the declining number of young people in the German job market. The percentage of seniors (over 65) went from 15% of the population in 1991 to 22% in 2020. This gives weight to younger generations, who have a different relationship with work. “I was born in 1964. My upbringing was work, work, work,” Jaeger recalls. “Young generations don’t have that pressure. Young people want greater balance with their personal life. We have to adapt to that.”


A gradual reduction in working hours

Since February, around 30 German companies have embarked on the four-day workweek journey. Involving over a thousand employees, to date, it’s the second largest trial of its kind to be conducted in the world, following the UK trial. Intraprenör put out a public call last October for companies interested in participating, with none being turned away.

The Germany trial has used the same 100-80-100 formula: 100% salary for 80% time with 100% productivity. “It’s really difficult to reduce to 80% time straightaway,” notes Bühren, who managed the trial. “Many companies work in stages using different models: every other Friday off, or an increase in paid leave…Today [as of mid-April], most have reduced to an average of 36 hours a week [compared to Germany’s statutory 40-hour week], which is a major step forward.” More than a quarter of participating companies belong to the industry or home services sector, where productivity gains are hardest to achieve.

For example, at Finnholz, a construction company in Hesse, they chose to extend the first four days of the week by an hour to have Fridays off. A decision that, although taken collectively, hasn’t been to everyone’s liking. “Some of my colleagues have been against it because they prefer to have an hour free every evening and spread the workload out over the week,” explains Leon Schott, a carpenter at the company. But, for him personally, he couldn’t be happier. “Having a three-day weekend is a true dream. It gives me time to travel to Berlin or Hamburg, take photos, or see my friends,” he says enthusiastically.


Productivity: The industrial headache

At Eurolam, a company that manufactures Louver windows, three quarters of its 46-strong workforce are blue-collar workers in production and maintenance, while one quarter are white-collar. There’s no talk of a utopian workplace from CEO Henning Röper, but rather a clear calculation. “We asked ourselves, how can we hire and keep our employees? There are many large factories in the region working with glass: Siemens, Zeiss, Jenoptik…I have to poach workers. The competition for hiring is fierce.”

Everything is therefore a matter of optimization. “Instead of spending half an hour every day cleaning their workstations, workers delegate this to another specialist team, which does it faster. This saves two hours a week for these workers,” explains the CEO, who is counting on the “reduction in sick leave to compensate for the remaining two hours.”

Others, such as Sven Kirchner, the co-CEO of Finnholz, are relying on new digital tools. “We have new software, which distributes tasks more smoothly. We have more meetings just before lunch. Interestingly, the closer to midday they are, the more efficient they are,” he says with a smile.

A high-quality study for solid results

The University of Münster, a project stakeholder, is simultaneously conducting another study with results expected in October 2024, the end of the six-month trial. “Our aim is to measure the evolution of productivity and wellbeing over the course of the experiment,” says study lead Dr. Julia Backmann. “For productivity, we’re basing ourselves on hundreds of individual interviews, on a large number of questionnaires and a high volume of data provided by the companies.” For measuring wellbeing, the researchers are using psychological data to ensure the results are as objective as possible. “Some volunteers are wearing smartwatches, which measure their heart rate, the quality of their sleep. We also take hair samples to monitor cortisol levels in the body, the stress hormone,” she adds.

“Ultimately, deciding to keep the four-day workweek is what will indicate whether the trial has been successful,” she concludes. “This will show whether change is economically viable.”

Last year, in the UK, 92% of the businesses expressed their desire to adopt the four-day workweek long-term. But unlike Germany, an overwhelming majority of the participating companies were office-based professions.


Enthusiasm won’t erase the challenges

Ten weeks after the experiment was launched, certain bosses are starting to see its limitations. Because, obviously, the four-day workweek isn’t a miracle cure for everything. “In our 30-person team, four have resigned since the start of the test, for personal reasons unrelated to the four-day week. I don’t know how we’re going keep up the pace,” Jaeger says. “We’ve already seen a 5% decrease in turnover since February.” He says as he begrudgingly motions towards the smartwatch he agreed to wear for the study.

A stroke of fate or a structural problem? Kirchner, on the other hand, highlights the sudden ease in recruiting and greater motivation within his teams—an observation shared by his 23-year-old communications officer, Freya Mefus. “I’ve got a lot of friends who work in insurance or who are still studying. When I tell them I work four days a week, they become excited. Some of them are totally jealous…”

Official results are expected in October 2024. By the end of this year, many European countries will have followed suit and joined the experiment—once again led by 4 Day Week Global: Italy, Norway, Belgium, Croatia, and France. This will broaden the sample to include other work cultures and sectors that have so far flown under 4 Day Week Global’s radar.

Free time is invaluable. My generation is very lucky to be witnessing these changes,” says Schott, the carpenter at Finnholz. He crosses his fingers every day hoping the trial will become the future norm.

Translation by Jamie Broadway

Photo by Thomas Decamps for Welcome to the Jungle

Follow Welcome to the Jungle on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram, and subscribe to our newsletter to get our latest articles every week!

Topics discussed