The four-day week: A win-win for both employers and employees? 

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The four-day workweek is not new. Nor are the perennial arguments over its pros and cons.

However, following the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a renewed focus on flexible working and its impact on well-being, productivity and innovation. The four-day week has therefore become a headline topic as countries and organisations have been experimenting with various models to understand their merits and pitfalls.

The UK’s 2023 four-day week trial saw companies choosing which type of four-day week model they followed. One option was the compressed week, which saw employees working the same number of hours as they did before, but across fewer days. This approach has been tried elsewhere. In Belgium, for instance, people can legally opt into this model.

Other approaches to the four-day week include a reduction in working time by up to three hours each week, half a day on Fridays, or a day off biweekly (known as an alternate workweek). The time off may be fixed or rotating, depending on business requirements. In a shared model, team members share the workload of a traditional full-time position (potentially working on alternating four-day shifts). Employees may opt into a four-day week and take a 20% pay reduction, or choose a nine-day fortnight for a 10% pay cut.

Whatever the model, the question of whether the four-day workweek can be expanded beyond the recent pilot studies has caught the attention of both employees and employers. From all of the studies and trials, what tangible lessons can employers take away? Is a four-day workweek truly useful for employees, or are we viewing the model through rose-tinted glasses?

Are we in for a productivity peak or trough?

The productivity gains delivered by the four-day week have been one of the key selling points of the model, but is there conclusive evidence of these benefits? Questions remain about whether the four-day week’s promise of greater engagement, well-being and less absenteeism, really leads to more productivity.

The news looks promising: while a precise calculation is difficult to establish, UK research has estimated that savings of £104 billion (US$131 billion) have been achieved thanks to the productivity gains achieved by organisations offering a four-day week.

Indeed, most four-day week pilot studies have shown that the majority of employees self-reported higher productivity. One report also noted that workers “actively sought out technologies that improved their productivity” during their shorter weeks. If a four-day week accelerates the integration of digital tools, this means that productivity and collaboration could be further bolstered across the board. Given generative AI and automation’s promise to increase efficiencies and productivity, a shorter workweek could actually make even more sense.

Other trials highlighted similar benefits. For example, in the New Zealand-based Perpetual Guardian four-day week trial, employees reported reduced stress and improved job satisfaction, all without sacrificing output. Also in New Zealand, Unilever benefited from productivity gains during their four-day week pilot. Senior stakeholders and partners reported that work was completed to a high standard and on time, which contributed to revenue growth. These results led Unilever to expand its four-day week trial to Australia.

Why have these positive results been observed? One reason is that work often expands to fill the time people give it. This was the justification given by Ryan Breslow, the founder of tech unicorn Bolt, when he opted to take Fridays off the table. Similarly, Gavin Krugel, co-founder and CEO of the not-for-profit Digital Frontiers , aimed to “move to a more outcome-oriented work model”, when he gave employees more scope to set their own pace, reject unnecessary meetings, and proactively set aside focus time in their diaries to get high-priority tasks completed.

That said, it is important to note that we’re yet to determine whether the productivity gains reported in four-day week trials are sustainable in the long term, as it’s simply too soon to tell in many cases.

Another challenge with the evaluation of productivity gains from a four-day workweek is that these gains are rarely measured in the same way across studies and pilots. In fact, the gains may not even be measured consistently within the same business. Recent research highlights that executives more often look at visibility and activity metrics to measure productivity rather than results. Such inconsistent or misaligned productivity metrics make it tough to really put your finger on what’s working and what isn’t. When implementing a four-day week it is therefore imperative to have clear metrics in place. There should also be regular employee listening activities, and transparent conversations should take place between managers and reports.

It is also important to note that there is not universal praise for the four-day week idea and that it doesn’t work for every business. Some companies that have tried the four-day approach are now turning back to five days in a bid to recover lost productivity. For others, burnout was a concern, with one small engineering and industrial supplies firm, Allcap, exiting the UK’s four-day week trial early  due to its employees working unsustainable hours.

More time to rest, or more time to stress?

Long working hours are linked to higher rates of heart disease and strokes. In comparison, a four-day week allows more time for people to exercise, undertake physical therapy, plan healthy meals, or catch up on sleep. These activities have been shown to make a tangible difference to various health conditions, including type 2 diabetes. A four-day week can also help alleviate musculoskeletal conditions by reducing ergonomic hazards, strain injuries, and long periods of unhealthy inactivity. On top of this, research shows that after implementing a four-day week, 78% of employers reported that their employees felt less stressed, as they had had more time to relax and/or complete the household tasks they usually crammed in over the weekend.

However, it’s not a given that employees will always utilise the extra time for rest and recovery. In practice, some might spend the extra day in an additional job to boost their finances. They might also find that each day of their four-day week spirals into overtime. Plus, less time in the workplace could mean that employees have less chance to socialise and collaborate with colleagues, which could have a negative impact on their social well-being.

One thing is certain: each employee will react to a four-day model differently. There’ll be some who will embrace the idea with open arms and actively use their extra free time to do something fun for themselves, returning to work feeling refreshed and positive. Others will eye it with caution, wondering how on earth they’ll squeeze their ever-expanding work “to-do” list into only four days. Most likely, this type of person will still be checking their emails on their extra day off. They may also be more prone to burnout.

Given this reality, it is important for employers who are intending to implement a four-day week to set clear expectations and offer some structure within the new flexible model. They should consider wrapping a four-day offering into a wider health and well-being strategy that effectively tackles the cause, rather than the symptoms, of any underlying workplace stress and health issues.

No more no-shows, or a performance of presenteeism?

Absenteeism and presenteeism are two sides of the same coin, and employers want to avoid both. Employee health and well-being are the foundations of a successful business — one in which these two problems are minimised or avoided.

A four-day model is one way to foster the type of healthy culture companies need, where people feel their wellness is truly prioritised. The effect is tangible, with a 2023 report pinpointing a 65% fall in sick days during the UK’s four-day week pilot. Findings like this connect the dots between time off and happier, healthier employees.

When it comes to presenteeism absenteeism’s productivity-sapping cousin it’s often marginalised or disadvantaged groups that are squeezed the hardest. Indeed, according to a Europe-wide study, it is people on low salaries, those based in regions with high unemployment, or those working in the industrial or healthcare space who are the most likely to head to work when they are sick.

By shifting the focus of performance evaluations away from hours worked, the four-day model can help to (slowly but surely) release the pressure that drives a culture of presenteeism. It can also help save companies money. Business in the Community has estimated that £110 billion (approximately US$139 billion) could be saved by addressing the low productivity associated with presenteeism in the UK — a figure not to be sniffed at.

Flexibility for all, or only for the few?

If the future of work is to be equitable and inclusive, businesses will need to pull out all the stops to offer flexible working arrangements for all employees. This calls for companies to get intentional about the issues that people face, and creative with solutions.

For example, many people with long-term sickness are unemployed because the systems currently in place do not support their needs. A return-to-work initiative for such employees could well include a four-day week, alongside an evidence-based health and well-being strategy. This approach would also suit parents, who would be able to share their caregiving responsibilities more equally, as they would have more time to spend with their families and on domestic tasks. The UK pilot highlighted another benefit in this area: it found that a four-day week can bring a reduction in childcare costs for over 20% of employees. The research found that parents with two children can save roughly £3,200 (US$4,000) on average per year in the four-day model.

Businesses will need to ensure that flexible work policies improve workplace equity, rather than further excluding marginalised employees. The experiences of under-represented groups should therefore be at the forefront of flexible working considerations. For example, mandating that the fifth day off is a Friday may exclude certain employees (for example, those who undertake religious observances on this day). In the United States, one company has addressed this by allowing employees to make their own call on what their four-day week should look like, making its four-day model more inclusive. The company has also embraced shift work to ensure that it’s not only knowledge workers who are benefiting from the four-day model, but skilled workers too.

A four-day workweek, “Good Work” and the ESG agenda

People gravitate to employers that take responsibility for environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues. What’s more, carving out a unique employee value proposition (EVP) that highlights and reflects a business’ approach to flexibility and sustainability can give that business an edge. In this context, a four-day working model can stand for more than giving employees flexibility; it can also position a company as progressive on environmental and social issues. Indeed, the World Economic Forum’s Good Work Framework calls for businesses to advocate for flexible working for all for those that sign up to this commitment.

Do the costs outweigh the benefits?

Many companies that have adopted four-day weeks have found them to be value-generating, with the company Wanderlust reporting that its annual revenue almost doubled a year after its moved to the work model — pretty impressive. Microsoft Japan saw its productivity jump nearly 40% when using the model. The UK’s four-day week pilot also points to the approach’s “resounding success” boosting the bottom line of the start-ups and SMEs that took part. In the pilot, post-adoption company revenues rose by 1.4% on average (weighted by company size). The proof is in the pudding: of the 61 participating companies, 92% committed to making a four-day week policy a permanent change in their organisations — so they certainly saw its long-term advantages.

Experiments in the private sector are one thing, but perceptions of the four-day week when it is funded by taxpayers can be different. Recently, a local government minister asked South Cambridgeshire district council to halt their four-day week trial due to concerns over “value for money” for taxpayers. In the trial, council employees were receiving full pay for fewer hours worked. In this case, the optics of a four-day workweek raised politically awkward questions.

Clearly, the impact a four-day week will have on the bottom line is not clear-cut, as it will have an effect on a myriad of business issues. For instance:

  • Reducing working hours can have a knock-on effect on the total reward that is offered to each employee, including their pensions and benefits: should these be reduced in line with less time worked? If they’re not, what will be the cost to the business? If they are, what will employees miss out on?
  • Businesses also need to be mindful of their approach to overtime and accrued leave in a four-day model: will overtime become more prevalent? What will be your stance on this? These are issues that can have costly implications if they’re not thought through properly.

So, what’s next?

Most companies are yet to adopt a four-day week, in part because of the simple matter that they need five days’ worth of productivity. As a result, rather than offering a break from the five-day grind, many companies are addressing employee well-being and engagement issues by upping the learning and contact days on offer.

For other companies, a four-day model would require them to spend what they consider to be a disproportionate amount of money on employee benefits. Instead they opt for job sharing or shift work, which allow them to scale down benefits accordingly.

Some business leaders are worried that a four-day workweek would allow employees to line up a side gig that could take their focus away from their day job, or even encourage them to start preparing for early retirement.

For employees, the cost of living crisis has significantly reduced the appeal of the four-day model where individuals must accept a pay drop as part of the package (typically 10-20%).

Will a four-day week work for your business?

Effective business reinvention must be driven by insights and clear guiding principles. Companies therefore need to ask themselves what challenges a four-day week (or any form of flexibility) would solve: productivity, sustainability, diversity or distributed work models? Take your pick.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) can help to clear the way by offering a better line of sight into how employees spend their time, which could pin down the true impact of a four-day model.

To figure out the feasibility of the four-day week and to prepare your own four-day week trial, think about:
  • Your aims:
    What are the core challenges you want to overcome by adopting a four-day week? Improved attraction and retention? Better options for marginalised groups? Increasing the proportion of women and/or carers and other underrepresented groups in your workforce? Healthier, happier employees? Higher productivity? Establish where your focus is, and how you anticipate a four-day week would help meet your aims.
  • What form your four-day work model should take:
    Will employees get 100% of their pay for working 80% of the time to deliver 100% of the usual output (the 100-80-100 arrangement)? Will you implement a compressed workweek, a model where people agree to take a 10-20% pay cut, or a shared model? Will there be any rules dictating how the day off should be spent (e.g., internal gigs, learning, outside pursuits, etc.)?
  • Caveats and seasonality:
    Consider whether a four-day offering would be permanent or seasonal (e.g., during the summer months, or for a set period of time for new parents returning to the workforce).
  • How you'll track success:
    You should set targets and establish performance metrics as part of any trial period. These should take into account the tangible (e.g., sick days, retention, etc.) and the intangible (self-reported productivity, engagement and well-being), along with any outputs (sales, revenue, etc.).

Whatever the business case for trialling a four-day workweek, how the trial is received will be influenced by the perspectives of different persona groups, by cultural norms and by employee expectations. Evaluating these variants, alongside other forms of flexibility, will be critical to gauging success.

Overall, the approach your company takes to the four-day week (or any form of flexibility, for that matter) must form part of a strategic decision that revolves around the direction your company wants to take, and the message it wants to send. If the approach tallies with that message — and with your wider values and visions — then it should certainly be something you should research and consider.

Other options?

If a four-day week isn’t on the cards for your business, consider what other flex options you could offer. These may include:
  • Personal hours gifted within the working day (e.g., for self-care, food shopping, a parent attending their child's school play, etc.)
  • Paid sabbaticals
  • Volunteering hours
  • Working abroad for a set number of days per year
  • Flexible hours (scaling hours per day based on demand)
  • Job sharing
  • Gig/contract work
  • Tenure-linked benefits (e.g., for self-care, food shopping, a parent attending their child’s school play, etc.)
To help you determine your approach to flexibility more broadly, we’ve identified six dimensions of flex:
  • When people work
  • Where they work
  • How they work
  • What they work on
  • Who is doing the work
  • The Why of work (how the work connects to an overall mission or purpose, or enables an individual to "dive back" through ESG-focused actions)
Providing flexibility in some or all of these aspects means that every worker gets some degree of flex in their role, based on what’s feasible, sustainable and affordable for the business.

One final word

Moving forward, four-day workweek models may be worth testing further. This is because the productivity gains that will be generated by AI and automation could lead to reductions in standard work times sooner than we think. This could accelerate the adoption of a four-day week amongst those companies that want to take this form of flexibility further and return productivity gains to their workers.
About the author(s)
David Wreford
Kate Bravery

Global Leader – Talent Advisory and Insight

Dr. Wolfgang Seidl
Yinka Olutola
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