Conversations about shortening the workweek to four days have been popping up for decades, and the COVID-19 pandemic has offered an opportunity for leaders around the world to reconsider the benefits of a four-day workweek. But granting employees a longer weekend requires more than just schedule changes. Its implications are also cultural and transitioning to a four-day workweek would require industries to rethink how they view productivity and compensation.
The History of the Workweek
In 1956, President Nixon said he foresaw a four-day workweek and a fuller family life for Americans “in the not-too-distant future.” The modern five-day workweek in the U.S. has roots more than a century ago, one example being a New England mill expanding a one-day weekend to two in order to accommodate Jewish workers celebrating their Sabbath on Saturday. In 1926 when Henry Ford instituted a five-day workweek at his company, the practice became popularized. In the 1930s, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that a decline in work hours would continue and that by 2030, people would work just 15 hours a week.
We’re less than a decade off from that prediction, when most full-time employees still work 40 hours a week. What held us back? First, during World War II, the needs for labor in both the military and manufacturing sectors skyrocketed. Women took jobs outside of the house for largely the first time, and the unemployment rate dropped from 25% to 10%. The idea of the “American Dream” made Americans value work as part of their culture, and with consumerism on the rise, people needed money to pay for luxuries (that they’d only get to enjoy in the evenings and on the weekends).
What We Know Now
Recently, a Microsoft Japan study showed that scaling back the workweek to four days increased productivity by 40%. About 92% of the 2,300 employees involved in the study viewed the four-day workweek positively. Employees were asked to communicate via an online chat tool rather than sending emails or having meetings. When meetings did occur, employees were asked to keep them 30 minutes or less and include no more than five participants. Employees’ wages remained the same.
The idea centered around efficiency. People still got the same amount of work done, but in less time. Instead of measuring productivity by hours worked, companies would have to measure it by tasks completed. Last year, Rutger Bregman, author of Utopia for Realists and Adam Grant, psychologist from the Wharton School in Pennsylvania, made a case for the four-day workweek at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland.
“I think we have some good experiments showing that if you reduce work hours, people are able to focus their attention more effectively, they end up producing just as much, often with higher quality and creativity,” Bregman said. “They are also more loyal to the organizations that are willing to give them the flexibility to care about their lives outside of work.”
Other studies have also tried to show the benefits of workdays that didn’t adhere to the typical 9-to-5. In Sweden in 2017, an experiment found that six-hour workdays led to increased employee happiness and productivity. However, the glaring con was that the practice was simply too expensive for employers to continue because new workers still ultimately had to be hired.
New Zealand seems to be a leader in much of the discourse surrounding the four-day workweek. In 2018, a study in the country found that a trial four-day workweek increased performance significantly. Perpetual Guardian, the company that led the experiment, made the change permanent. Starting in December 2020, Unilever New Zealand is trialing a four-day workweek in the country. The trial will last until December 2021.
Advocates Support the Idea
Similarly, Spanish Vice President Pablo Iglesias called for a shift to a 32-hour workweek in his country. In 2021, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said a four-day workweek should be part of COVID-19 economic recovery.
There is even a nonprofit, 4DayWeek, that encourages businesses, employees, researchers and government to push for three-day weekends worldwide.
In a COVID-19 world, an extra day off could help with social distancing guidelines and help families with childcare schedules.
The Bottom Line
The issue of the four-day workweek ultimately comes down to companies being willing to change their cultures and truly look at how they view productivity and profitability. There’s also a possible class divide component. Front-line and blue-collar workers may not have the luxury of scaling back their hours because organizations might not be willing to pay employees overtime for work completed outside of the four-day schedule. Additionally, if two companies work together and only one has adopted the four-day workweek, that’s one entire day representatives can’t be reached, slowing potential business in key areas.
On the flip side, a four-day workweek could help with recruitment, retention, employee satisfaction and, as research suggests, productivity. But before our society moves away from the grind, organizations and industries need to shift how they view success. Unfortunately for Keynes and his 2030 prediction, it’s a process that could still take many decades to come to fruition. But considering how quickly we all adapted to COVID-19 and working from home, history has shown us anything is possible.