Today, leaders face increasing calls for more flexibility, low employee engagement, the Great Resignation and all-time high levels of burnout. Is the four-day workweek the solution to achieving work-life balance?
Almost weekly, companies around the world announce they are experimenting with four-days at work, three-days off. But does it work? And do certain groups of workers benefit more than others?
The four-day workweek and productivity
One of the first four-day workweek trials took place at Perpetual Guardian in New Zealand. The company found that job performance remained unchanged when reducing working hours, with improvements in staff attendance and work-life balance. In Iceland, a 2,500 employee trial by the government and Reykjavík City Council reported similar results: Productivity remained the same, employees’ psychological and physical health improved, and stress and burnout decreased.
These successes are encouraging. It is also noteworthy that both environments had low productivity where long working hours were encouraged. During the trials, ways of working were optimized, and employees prioritized efficient activities conducted in a shorter time. When applying the same model in different contexts, the specific tasks required of employees and baseline productivity warrant consideration. For example, employees from other trials also cut out socializing and thinking time. According to future of work predictions, these people skills, alongside abstract, strategic, and creative thinking, will become increasingly important as routine tasks are automated. If firms even unconsciously de-emphasize furthering these skills, given they may not link directly to day-to-day performance, they may be left behind.
- Pay attention to how performance is assessed: Can complex and collaborative tasks be tracked well, or does the system bias easily classifiable achievements?
- Experiment with four days of contact time: Reducing hours might lead to pressure to work longer or complete complex tasks quickly, increasing stress. Alternatively, employees might feel frustrated that work is “spilling over” to non-working days. Instead of a set day off, startups Bolt and Friday implemented a flexible fifth day for either deep-thinking work or personal time, but with no requirement to be “online.”
Diving into flexibility
The four-day workweek also aims to answer calls for flexibility. It means having extra time for hobbies, volunteering, or one’s family. When The Wanderlust Group implemented it, their CEO, Mike Melillo, shared the team benefited from “having Monday to themselves—with no family obligations and no work obligations—which gives them time to think heading into the week.” However, not everyone can schedule their non-work responsibilities on a single day off. Over 1 in 5 Americans care for an adult or child. For some, flexibility could mean working from home or picking up children at 3 p.m. to save on after-school care. Others might need to interrupt their workday and handle unforeseen crises. Significantly, having control over work timing and location can decrease the stress of balancing work and family roles.
- Understand the different needs of employees: The four-day workweek is particularly appealing to younger generations. In a UK survey, 67% of Gen Z workers agree it would drive their choice of employer. Appraising work-life needs at different life and career stages can uncover alternative preferential working arrangements. Working from home continues to be one of the main asks of employees and should not be abandoned in lieu of shortening the workweek.
- Beware of sorting: Creating constraints as to a specific day off might impact employees’ perception of working culture. If your policies signal that flexibility is working fewer days, but potentially longer hours, it will attract people who find this appealing, while deterring others who cannot accommodate this schedule. Consequently, it may increase homogeneity and decrease diversity of thought in your organization.
Disentangling employee engagement
It is also important to reflect on what is the goal of a four-day workweek. Are you trying to improve flexibility, well-being, or engagement? Shortening the working week won’t resolve all employees’ concerns, particularly if they have negative work experiences, are not psychologically safe, or do not perceive the culture as inclusive. Research by Gallup highlights these complexities. Employees working four days report less burnout and higher well-being, compared with those working five or six days. Yet, the proportion of actively disengaged employees was highest for those working four or six days.
For employees who are less concerned about how many hours they work, but dissatisfied with the environment they work in, shortening the week could even backfire, as employees feel even more disconnected from their jobs.
Setting work schedules
Thinking about the workweek is also an opportunity to adapt to when employees are at their best. There is a growing understanding that we have an internal clock defining our sleep-awake patterns and alertness. Throughout the day, everyone has peaks and dips of alertness, attention, and subsequent performance.
The typical 9-to-5 day assumes workers achieve peak alertness relatively simultaneously, despite mounting evidence of individual differences in internal rhythms, or chronotypes. While some people are better at complex tasks in the morning, others might naturally perform better later in the day. Factors such as age, personality, gender, and even light exposure all influence chronotype.
- Allow employees to set working schedules based on their natural peak of productivity and creativity: Giving control could mean attracting and retaining high performers regardless of chronotype. People with later circadian rhythms, for example, tend to accumulate sleep debt during working days, which research shows can be detrimental to performance and health.
Some employees might see a four-day workweek as a sign their organization is listening to their needs. However, it could exclude those who need other modes of flexibility. If we’re rethinking how to organize work around a time that is more convenient and productive, why stick with a fixed day over a week? Perhaps a better question is how you can afford employees the freedom to set their working hours and optimize their productivity. Venturing into this exercise could open a whole new set of work models, with rewards for all.
Teresa Almeida is the behavioral science research officer of the Inclusion Initiative, a research center at the London School of Economics.
Dr. Grace Lordan is the founding director of the Inclusion Initiative and as associate professor at the London School of Economics.