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Four-day workweeks are good for business, but aren’t for everyone. Here’s why


Most of the world works at least 40 hours a week, if not more. We are a rather overworked, overstressed lot, but things are changing for the better. A renewed awareness of work-life balance that positively affects employee happiness and productivity has created a shift, and the idea of a shorter workweek is gaining ground. 

An increasing number of organizations—private and public—are now testing a four-day workweek as a way to give employees more personal time without adversely affecting day-to-day business operations.

What is a four-day workweek?

A four-day workweek is exactly what it sounds like—employees work four days a week and get paid for five. The advantages for employees are pretty clear: one extra day off each week (and no daily commute!) gives them more time to rest and recharge, pursue personal interests, or chill with the family. A shorter workweek helps employees achieve a better work-life balance, so they can be happier and more motivated to bring their best selves to work every day.

But the employee isn’t the only one that benefits from a shorter workweek. Studies show several benefits for businesses such as reduced stress, increased efficiency, and more engaged employees. More importantly, we now have proof that a four-day workweek can be as productive as the usual five-day grind, if not more so.

Why four-day workweeks are good for business

No productivity loss, it actually goes up!

In August this year, Microsoft Japan tested a four-day workweek with 2,300 employees, giving them five Fridays off without decreasing pay. The shorter workweeks led to a 40% jump in productivity. Further, employees took 25% less time off, and most of them (92%) said they liked the shorter week.

Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand-based trust management firm, ran a similar trial in April 2018. The firm reduced the workweek to 32 hours for its 240 employees without docking pay and saw a 20% jump in productivity.

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Employees are happier to be at work

Obviously, folks are happy to get an extra day off each week, but working one less day each week has surprising long-term benefits too! Perpetual Guardian’s 240 employees reported better work-life balance after the trial—78% versus 54%—and less stress—38% versus 45%. Folks were coming back to work with more energy and enthusiasm after their days off, so they were more engaged at work. Unsurprisingly, the firm switched to a four-day workweek for good.

Four-day workweeks improve efficiency in the workplace

At Perpetual Guardian, shifting to a shorter workweek made employees automatically focus on using each hour at work more efficiently. Meetings were reduced from two hours to 30 minutes, employees began automating manual processes, and there was a significant decrease in non-work related internet browsing. The Microsoft Japan study also found that meeting times were cut from an hour down to 30 minutes for about half of all meetings.

Shorter workweeks are good for the environment (and save you money!)

Thanks to the four-day workweek, Microsoft Japan offices used 23% less electricity and printed 59% fewer pages during August 2019 compared to the same period in the previous year.

Perpetual Guardian too saw lower electricity bills during their four-day workweek trial. Andrew Barnes, the company’s founder, has also talked about wider implications if more organizations adopt a similar strategy: “You’ve got 20 percent of cars off the road in (sic) rush hour; there are implications for urban design, such as smaller offices.”

Why four-day workweeks aren’t for every business

Switching to shorter workweeks can be risky

While studies show that employees will go the extra mile to get an extra day off, it’s not an ironclad promise, and that’s a big risk. When you switch to a shorter workweek, just a few team members falling behind on their work can drag down the entire team’s productivity much more easily than it would in a regular five-day week. Because employees have fewer hours to do the same amount of work each week, they can’t spare any in later weeks to catch up on pending work. It’s a vicious cycle that can crash the whole house of cards.

Four-day workweeks can be more expensive in some industries

One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to four-day workweeks, simply because work requirements vary between industries. Industries that require round-the-clock staff presence may find switching to a shorter workweek more expensive due to the need for additional hiring.

That’s exactly what happened when the Swedish government conducted a 2-year study to test 6-hour workdays at the Svartedalens elderly care home. Employees completed the same amount of work or more, despite working fewer hours each day. However, while employee satisfaction levels were up, the practice proved too expensive to maintain as the government had to hire a lot more people to work during the remaining business hours.

Sometimes, a shorter workweek is just not practical for your business

Some jobs just take time to complete, even when folks are super-motivated and engaged at work. In these cases, a shorter workweek might mean employees putting in overtime to get the usual amount of work done. Working overtime kills any benefits your employees might get out of a shorter workweek. Worse, your business ends up paying a lot more in overtime compensation to create the same amount of value.

Consider the unintended consequences of France’s move to a shorter workweek. Introduced in 1998 as a measure to create more jobs, the Aubry laws reduced the nation’s workweek to 35 hours with strict provisions for paid overtime. It worked: official figures show that 350,000 new jobs were created due to the shorter workweek, but a significant percentage of employees were now putting in extra hours to meet their work requirements. 

By 2010, half of all full-time workers in the country were putting in paid overtime. Just two years later, full-time employees in France were working an average of 39.5 hours a week, and the Aubry laws meant that businesses were spending more on overtime pay. The cost of doing business in France increased significantly, and many argue that this is how the Aubry laws are stifling the country’s economic growth.

It boils down to this: Four-day workweeks offer your employees more opportunities to balance personal and professional needs. Good work-life balance equals happier employees that are more motivated, engaged, and productive. Four-day workweeks are a win-win for employers and employees—just not for every business.