When a 240-person trust and estate planning firm in New Zealand–Perpetual Guardian–announced the results of an experiment giving its employees a 32-hour, four-day workweek last year, it drew global attention. Executives were so happy with the results that they decided to make the short week permanent for any employee who wanted it.
Many employees welcome the idea of a shorter workweek. According to a survey by the Workforce Institute at Kronos Incorporated and Future Workplace, nearly three-quarters said they’d work four days or less if their pay didn’t change and that work currently interferes with their personal life. Millennials would trade a higher salary for more flexibility and control over when they work, according to studies by Fidelity Investments and Qualtrics.
Yet most full-time professionals in the United States and other countries work more than the standard 40-hour workweek, and sometimes far more. It’s difficult to find statistics on companies that offer workweeks shorter than the norm.
Why shorter workweeks are so uncommon
Study companies with shorter workweeks, and you’ll start to understand why it is so rare: Their culture is entirely different than the average American organization. Instead of back-to-back meetings, overflowing email, and constant “fires” to put out, these companies have taken pains to create a sane work environment, in which employees have the time and mental space to get their real work done.
Allan Christensen, chief operating officer at Doist, said that employees rarely see the word “ASAP” mentioned when they’re at work. “It’s a term that’s basically disappeared.” The company’s workforce, which is spread around the globe, has complete flexibility in when they work their 40-hour week each week and are encouraged to disconnect outside of that time. ”
Why workers don’t feel like they have enough time to do work
British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that we’d be working 15 hours by now because he thought that technological advances would free us to enjoy ample leisure time. But technology ushered us in the opposite direction. The ability to connect 24/7 has left us without proper boundaries, so we feel compelled to check and respond to electronic communication constantly by the products’ design. Add meetings and other distractions, and most employees struggle to do their “real work,” and feel that there are never enough hours in the day.
“Modern workplaces are interruption factories. They cut, slice, and demolish the hours of the day with meetings, distractions, open-office nonsense, and ultimately leave no time to do the actual work,” says Basecamp’s chief technology officer David Heinemeier Hansson. “If people really just had eight hours per day to work, they’d be fine. More than fine!”
How to get the most out of a shorter workweek
Of course, moving to a shorter workweek has encouraged (and in some cases even required) companies to rein in use of email, meetings, and other distractions. Nate Reusser, the CEO of Reusser Design, an Indiana company that gives its employees the option of a compressed four-day workweek, says, “Having a compressed workweek does motivate us to hold fewer meetings, and we always ask ourselves if we need to hold the meeting, and who has to be there.”
Doist quit using Slack after finding the real-time messaging app was swallowing their time and changing the way they worked. The company was inspired to create their own team communication app, Twist, which they designed so workers don’t feel the constant need to check group chats. Employees can even indicate on Twist when they are on vacation so they don’t receive messages during that time. “Conversations may happen more slowly, but more real work gets done, since we don’t have to deal with constant distractions and context switching that come with real-time messaging,” wrote CEO Amir Salihefendic in 2017.
So why aren’t more companies doing it?
Two years after Oregon online education company Treehouse offered its employees a 32-hour workweek in 2014, the company ended the policy, at a time when it was making layoffs. Not enough work was getting done to justify a shorter workweek, CEO Ryan Carson told Growthlab in 2018: “[I]t created this lack of work ethic in me that it was fundamentally detrimental to the business and to our mission. It actually was a terrible thing.” (Carson didn’t say whether his employees were less productive as well.)
Carson now works 65 hours a week. “There is a certain amount of hard work you have to do,” he said. “I think you can work smarter, but I don’t think you can not work harder as well–you gotta do both,” he says.
A shorter workweek also can create a time crunch.”The problem with four-day weeks isn’t so much that it’s four days, but that if you lose just a single day, then it’s only three. And in our experience, three just doesn’t cut it,” says Hansson. “One unforeseen circumstance and you’re down to this-doesn’t-work at three.”
There is also the issue of ensuring a company is adequately available to its clients. “The challenges are to ensure that we maintain our usual high-level of customer service and our usual productivity and revenue levels with staff doing 100% of their work in 80% of the standard time,” says Christine Brotherton, the head of people and capability at Perpetual Guardian. Yet she says that they found in their trial shows this is possible.
A local government in Sweden that gave nurses a shorter, six-hour workweek had to spend $1.3 million to hire 15 additional employees to work the hours that the others were no longer putting in. On the plus side, adding the additional jobs also reduced the state’s unemployment costs by $530,000.
Some, like author and workplace consultant Jeffrey Butler, believes that the shorter workweek is just a passing trend: “Our economy is more ‘aggressive’ than places like Sweden and France. There’s no way New York is going to adopt the four-day workweek,” he says.
But those who have done it think it’s entirely possible for the shorter workweek to spread if companies change how they work. “We firmly believe that 40 hours is enough at Basecamp. Not just enough, but plenty,” says Hansson. “Everyone is quick to simply reach for more hours, few are willing to do the harder work of getting the ones already there to count. That’s the work we’re focused on.”
On reducing the shame of a shorter workweek
There are many benefits to a shorter workweek: less stress, less sickness, and probably better sleep. But writers like me feel obligated to cite scientific studies and quotes from experts to justify what is perfectly rational: that most of us wish we had more time to spend with family and friends, at the park, or sleeping. In an intense work culture, people fear that this can make them appear lazy, even though companies who have successfully implemented the four-day workweek demonstrate that this is far from the truth.
For other companies that want to go this route, Brotherton advises giving staff ownership of the program. “[A]sk them what they want as an employee and how they think a flexible work program should be designed. Ask them how their productivity should be measured: If a shorter week or different working hours are proposed, how can their output or deliverables be assessed?”
She also recommends commissioning an independent analysis of the process and outcomes and share it publicly, because even though flexible working “is still in its infancy,” it is “heading rapidly towards a tipping point.”
Companies must lead from the top, says Christensen. He sticks to the company’s 40-hour workweek himself, and believes in having a fulfilling life outside of his job. His hobby is gutting and renovating homes, and he is preparing to take paternity leave for when his and his wife’s first child is born.
“It has to do with the mind-set of the company,” says Christensen. “We’re in it for the long haul. It doesn’t have to be a sprint.”
Elaine Meyer is a writer and editor temporarily living in the southwest of France, where work-life balance is real.