What’s next for the masterminds behind the four-day week push?

12 févr. 2024


What’s next for the masterminds behind the four-day week push?
Rozena Crossman

Journalist and translator based in Paris, France.

It’s hard to believe the current four-day week frenzy began with one lesser-known business in New Zealand. Today, the movement spans nations from France to Brazil to the UAE, has won the support of 81% of America’s full-time workers and is demanded by hefty unions. The campaign has expanded rapidly since 2018, when Andrew Barnes, an entrepreneur in Auckland, decided to test the concept within his own company.

Perpetual Guardian, Barnes’ financial services company, made international waves when it adopted the new system permanently that same year. There was significant interest from overseas, so Barnes founded 4 Day Week Global, a nonprofit firm, to spread the word. The organization trademarked its 100:80:100 model, which aims to enable companies to generate 100% of output in 80% of the time while continuing to pay employees 100% of their previous wages. It supported the UK’s pilot program involving nearly 3,000 employees in 61 companies, and its most recent report followed a trial in South Africa. When it comes to making the four-day week work for everyone, this company is the world’s leading expert.

So Welcome to the Jungle spoke with Dale Whelehan, the behavior scientist, wellbeing expert and four-day week campaigner who became chief executive of 4 Day Week Global in 2023. He told us about adapting the 100-80-100 model to different countries and professions, avoiding the inequalities a four-day week could cause, and the next steps he’d like to take to keep up the impressive momentum.

Tell me a bit about your role at 4 Day Week Global and what the company does

I joined about a year ago, but I was involved in the Irish campaign for a four-day week for two years prior to that. My main role was to establish what the next steps for 4 Day Global as an organization would be. It was originally an advocacy group based on preliminary research done by the founders on their own company. But then the pilot studies and their results became a key differentiator for us as a business. So, as interest in the four-day week has grown, we’ve evolved to meet those needs. We now work as a social business providing offerings to companies of varying sizes in their journey towards the four-day week, as well as having the social mission of being able to provide resources to people about how best to implement a four-day week – and why it might be good for broader societal issues around the environment, equality and health.

How is 4 Day Week Global funded?

Our main source of funding is the companies that use our services. The pilot program fees are based on the size of the company signing up. We as a team have grown 53% over the past year because of the growth in interest from companies willing to try the four-day week.

As we wish to expand even further, we need to think about what’s going to sustain us revenue-wise. We have three new offerings. One is a foundation course, which is fully digital. It’s six hours of online learning on how to do a four-day week. Companies or individuals can sign up. The second is the pilot program, which is a six-month intervention and change management program. The last is bespoke individual consulting. We’ve had six consulting clients in the past year and intend to expand as the market grows and becomes more diverse.

Can you tell us about the 100:80:100 method?

When Andrew Barnes and Charlotte Lockhart, the founders, wanted to implement a four-day week in their own company, Perpetual Guardian, they came from the angle of productivity. Andrew had been reading a lot of research suggesting that productivity could be improved if people had more time off to rest and recover. So, the 100-80-100 method was founded from a business perspective: How do you maintain the same level of output in less time, drawing on the principle of Parkinson’s law…? [Parkinson’s Law states that work stretches to fill the time allocated to it]. We’ve been trying out the method in more than 350 companies over the past few years and see diverse ways a four-day week can be implemented as a result.

How did the country-wide pilot programs get started?

There were a lot of different conversations around reducing work in a global context, and Andrew Barnes had been reaching out to other countries while they were doing an international road show on Perpetual Guardian’s trial. They came across interest in the US, Ireland and the UK initially, and from that they came up with the idea that they would do pilot studies in order to try to build the conversation. We needed proof of concept to show that this is something that could be done, as opposed to something that was hugely aspirational. In the Irish campaign – which was the first to produce data out of any of the trials – we were facing barriers of people saying, “This will never work. Show us the data.” Now, we’re in a different phase of that conversation where we have people saying, “Okay, this can work. It just can’t work in my sector.” So the next challenge is to showcase how this can work in different professional sectors, from manufacturing to healthcare, and provide [examples of] best practices so people can realize that reducing working hours is not as simple as just cutting 20%. It’s a lot more comprehensive and robust than that.

When you do a country-wide pilot, do you have to get the government’s okay? Or do you assemble a group of companies within the same country and run a pilot without government involvement?

It’s been dependent on the country. We published reports from five countries in 2023, and they’ve all been different. In South Africa, [the trial] was led by one individual, Karen Lowe. She took a keen interest and wanted to try it in her own company, and therefore, she set up 4 Day Week South Africa, a nonprofit. She recruited other companies in South Africa to trial this alongside her. In the UK, we had 4 Day Week campaign, which is a lobbying group, working alongside a think tank called Autonomy. They were involved in recruiting companies in the UK, and then the US and for Australasia. We just had the first government-sponsored trial in Portugal, in which the government funded companies to trial a four-day week. That was promising. The results come out in March, but a version came out in December. There is a trial in Spain, but we were involved only in the early stages. The city of Valencia also did its own four-day week trial by accident. It had three bank holidays in a row, [so it] decided to pull another bank holiday into that month and do a city-wide evaluation of what shorter working hours looked like. We weren’t involved in that, but we’ll be supporting the upcoming Belgian government-sponsored trial. [The Belgian public service trial is not paying Four Day Week Global any consulting fees].

What we’re really interested in is less so government-backed sponsorship than trying to find people who are brazen enough to try to make it happen in their own country. So we’ve been trying to find individuals who are influential, who know how to build a social movement and contextualize it to their country. Over the last year, we’ve signed a series of new national partnerships [headed by individuals and organizations] in Norway and Sweden, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. They all will be building up the conversation around the four-day week in their own countries in the next 12 months.


When you design pilot programs that are countrywide, do you adapt them to different laws and cultures?

4 Day Week Global is a small unit – there are 13 of us – but we have a broader national partnership model . . . They use our resources to drive improvements, and then take a percentage of the local pilot sign-up fees. They’re also involved in helping to coordinate the trial in their local jurisdiction.

If we take the most recent example, Brazil, we had to translate everything into Portuguese. We’re lucky at 4 Day Week Global to have nine or 10 languages. In Germany, we’ll use a hybrid of German and English. Some masterclasses and workshops are given by us and some by our German partner, who talks about the nuances around legislation and working time. We tend to avoid getting into legal conversations ourselves because we advocate for pilots, meaning you’re not required to make any sort of legal change in most countries if you’re simply experimenting with something. We’re finding that even at the 12-month mark, companies are continuing with the trial, some saying it’s still a pilot. I think this will continue to be our practice going forward, where 4 Day Week Global simply observes and supports the pilot, but leaves legal management to our partners.

The last part, which has been critical to the success of the movement, are the independent academics who evaluate the outcomes of the different programs and their transition. We have central research programs at Boston College [in the US] and the University of Cambridge in the UK, which do qualitative research on the participants of pilot studies. Then we also have local academic partners asking questions specific to their regions. For example, in South Africa we had Stellenbosch Business School, asking questions around load shedding [turning off energy to certain areas at specific times in rolling blackouts] and the impact of working hours on the energy crisis in South Africa. The University of Münster will ask specific questions relating to how the four-day week impacts the German economy. It’s critical for us to continue to have that academic independence and rigor in order to build the conversation further.

When we sign off with partners, we ask them to commit to certain tasks in the first place or to try to set themselves up for as much success as possible. We ask them to create an advisory board at the national level where five different stakeholders will be involved: a business representative; a workers representative; someone from the environmental sector; someone from the equality space; and someone from the research space. It’s up to them to form that advisory board and socialize the message in those different sectors.

Are you finding discrepancies in the way countries implement a four-day week?

I think the biggest one will be seen in France. The French legislation is quite nuanced around working time for different types of workers. You have the 35-hour workers and then you have the management staff working hours [which tend to be longer]. So our French partner is getting a legal expert as part of the advisory board for the pilot study. [French president Emmanuel] Macron is trying to increase the pension age, and he has flirted with the idea of a four-day week as a way to achieve that. It would be interesting to see how a four-day week could become tied up with bigger conversations in France in a way we’re not seeing in other countries.

Otherwise, we haven’t seen many discrepancies. The biggest cultural difference we saw was between developing versus developed countries. In the US, most people chose to take off Fridays as a first preference, then Mondays, then Wednesdays. In South Africa, there was a huge variance. People changed which day they took off nearly every week [and] more side hustles were taken up during their time off. In South Africa, people were trying to make more money. But in Western countries, we didn’t find people trying to earn more [during their extra day off], they were using it to live life or to recover.

I’m interested in your South Africa report. What was it like to do a pilot in a country where unemployment is above 30%?

I was surprised to find how successful it was given all the challenges facing South Africa. We recruited far more companies than we did in Ireland, for example, and the companies had a higher level of engagement than some companies from the Western pilots. We seem to be making more conscious efforts to get a diversity of populations involved in our pilots. That’s something that’s quite important to me.

This can’t be an intervention that just works for companies that are doing well, or companies that are predominantly white. It shouldn’t be creating a two-tiered system. It shouldn’t just benefit places where people want to work – making them into places people want to work even more. The not-for-profit sector, for example, is struggling with recruitment and with keeping up with salaries in the private sector. The four-day week could become an important differentiator to help it recruit staff. It’s similar with healthcare. We’re facing a global healthcare crisis at the moment with regard to recruiting and retaining staff. There’s a cycle of people in the system overworking perpetually, and then burning out and leaving the system. It’s critically important that we start to showcase how we could work within these sorts of sectors to keep people there.

One of my key aspirations for the organization is to get to a funding model where consulting sustains us, and we can offer low-tier costs or freemium offerings to companies that can’t afford our services now. That is an important goal because we have “global” in our name. So we’ve been trying to make sure we have pilots happening on as many continents as possible and that we’re not leaving the conversation behind anywhere.

For South Africa, there are a lot of factors and I don’t have the answer as to whether the four-day week will become socialized to as great a degree as in other countries. But it puts the country on the map for something positive. It’s not a place that’s doing well. Over the past few years, we’ve heard about the energy crisis and all these other issues, which are creating a brain drain from their economy. So something like this, which could help attract talent, might [create interest in] government-sponsored trials.


What countries will you do pilots in next?

We’ll see activity happening in the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Italy, Germany, Sweden and Norway. There’s an individual working on the four-day week in Denmark, and there’s some interest in Poland, albeit there has been less interest from Eastern European countries. Croatia withdrew its interest because of the economy. We’re getting the results from Brazil and we have interest in Chile. And we have ongoing activities in countries such as Ireland, the UK, and the US.

We have had interest from individuals in China and we have a partnership with India. But I have no idea how they’re going to happen in the sense that there will be a lot of nuanced understandings to try to bring the four-day week trial to those economies. It might not be four-day trials – it might be using the 100-80-100 principle to reduce working time. That’s ultimately what we’re trying to do, reduce working time.

How can you use the 100-80-100 principle without a four-day week?

If an economy has, say, a baseline working week of 50 hours, we’re looking to cut working time by 20%. So if we could get them down to 42 hours in a trial, we would see it as a success. . . The baseline for some countries is not 40 hours per week, it’s much higher. And the transition to reduce working time for those companies is going to be a much longer process than simply a six- or 12-month pilot.

So if everyone’s working 50 hours, let’s get them down to 42. And let’s aim to achieve that by a six-month mark. Then if we get down to 42, let’s try it again. Let’s see if we can get them down to 36 or 34. That is the way we need to approach this with organizations with a significantly heavy culture around overworking.

In our trials, we provide best practice on how different companies and sectors have cut their working hours. Some might have people work three days over longer shifts, or it might be five shorter days. You might need staff full time for certain periods of the month and then off for other periods of the month. For example, there was a fish and chip shop in the UK trial that wasn’t covering its costs the entire time the shop was open. So they decided to shut the shop [during quiet times] and keep it open when it was busy. So 100-80-100 doesn’t have to be applied across a week, it can be applied across a month or a year, depending on the business. That’s where the work with independent academics comes in: understanding and showcasing the different ways in which companies are placing the working time.

A lot of those interested in the four-day week are employees who don’t have any power over their working hours. What can they do?

We’re going to provide more freemium offerings on how to persuade your boss and build a business case. What are the key data metrics that would help to create a pilot in your organization? That’s where we’re going to be working a little bit more in the advocacy and community space. We have an advocates network, which will be scaling up this year for people who want to be involved in the movement.

We’re trying to change people’s behavior, which is one of the most difficult things to do and can be extremely messy. So I like the analogy that you can lead the horse to water – you can provide a policy for a four-day week. You can poke the horse and encourage it to drink the water ie you can create procedures, cultural norms, and a leadership style. But, ultimately, the horse has to drink the water. So what interventions can we make to train people in how to switch off and detach from work – [so that they can later] work more effectively? That’s where the foundation course offering is going to expand to provide more individual productivity consulting. [It will look at:] What kind of quick individual interventions you can make to reschedule your workday, and create more flow experiences within your work; and [how we can] redesign technology to reduce your working time instead of increase your working time. That will be important for individuals who feel this movement’s not for them.

It sounds hard to lead horses to water on a mass scale, especially if they’re not in a pilot program

Before this, I used to work in human capital consulting. There are large amounts of money being pumped into organizations to try to address issues of efficiency and waste and the like. What we see is a bias towards technology: “We’re bringing in a new CRM [customer relationship management] system,” or “We’re bringing in a new finance forecasting tool so that we can do better planning.” But human resource transformation is often neglected. At the end of the day, businesses are run by humans. Just because you have a new finance tool or technology doesn’t mean it will be used well if your staff are burned out.

It requires a fundamental shift in paradigm. This is a psychological intervention to change the mindset of your workforce. And that will not be as simple as snapping your fingers, and everything will be rosy on day one. So hard conversations have to happen. But, it is a worthwhile investment because you can build a sense of high performance in your team. You can build a collective buy-in, trust and safety – all these things that organizations aspire to have but don’t because high performance can’t exist with high burnout. What we’re finding is that those organizations that are changing how they approach work and their mindset around work are able to reduce mental health problems, which is positive.

Have you looked into the idea that the four-day week might create jobs?

[This is] related to the question of AI [artificial intelligence] because people are saying, “Okay, AI, four-day week, big job losses. Big. Scary.” I’m more optimistic in saying, “No. What the new world of work could look like is this: By having AI do more of the automated and repetitive work that some younger staff are doing, we can bring in younger staff with a level of knowledge – [often a master’s] – and we can start looking at leveraging human capability that [AI] can’t do, things like emotional intelligence and innovation.” What gets people [to that position where they realize what differentiates] us relative to AI is [when they understand] that we need a workforce that’s not burnt out in the first place. People are only going to be able to think about new solutions, to think creatively about a different type of world and a different type of work, if they are feeling well rested and hopeful about their work.

[Anxiety over the increased use of new] technology that came in the 2000s [led to fears of] job losses. It didn’t result in that. Instead, what we saw was exponential growth in productivity coupled with an inability to detach from work. We have an opportunity now, in the space of AI and the four-day week, to do something different and create a different type of world.

Photo: Fran Veale for Welcome to the Jungle

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