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The four-day workweek: Pipe dream or possibility?

At a glance

  • Four-day workweeks often take the form of four 10-hour days or a 32-hour workweek.
  • Some countries are already on the four-day workweek bandwagon, including Belgium, Spain, Scotland, Iceland, Japan, New Zealand and the United Arab Emirates.
  • California and Pennsylvania recently proposed legislation to implement four-day working weeks.
  • Navigating your next career move, whether it’s to a company with a four-day workweek or just better perks, is easier with insight. Learn more about career trends on our blog!

Dreaming of a four-day workweek?

If you’ve ever:

  • Felt like the point of the workweek was to make it to Friday afternoon
  • Wished on Sunday that you had just one more day left of the weekend
  • Had to squeeze in doctor appointments at 7 a.m. so you could get to work on time …

Then you probably like the sound of a four-day workweek.

(Spoiler alert: Most people do!)

Four-day working weeks are moving from concept to (potential) reality these days, and a big reason for that transition is, surprise, the same reason driving most career trends: the COVID-19 pandemic.

“One of the main things that came out of the pandemic from a workplace perspective is employees really understanding the importance of work-life balance,” observes Ricklyn Woods, career advisor at University of Phoenix

“Remote work is one aspect of that, but the shorter workweek is another component.”

So, what’s stopping everyone from stepping back to four days of clocking in? Just as when the workweek changed from six days to five in the early 20th century (thanks largely to the Ford Motor Company making the switch in 1926), there are pros and cons to both sides of the issue.

Why consider a four-day workweek?

One reason a four-day workweek is getting so much play these days is because of a high-profile experiment currently underway.

Helmed by the New Zealand-based nonprofit coalition 4 Day Week Global, the pilot program has engaged 35 companies in the U.S. and Canada to try a four-day workweek for six months. The objective? To see if those companies enjoy the same levels of productivity when working 32 hours instead of 40.

While the program is technically dubbed “the pilot,” it is not the organization’s first foray into implementing what seems like a pie-in-the-sky concept. The coalition was born when its founding member brought a four-day week to his company, Perpetual Guardian.

There were enough benefits from the experience to take the concept global. In addition to encouraging companies to join the pilot program, 4 Day Week Global offers training, mentoring, networking and research to help make the transition to a shorter workweek more feasible.

The statistics reported by the program are encouraging. Consider the following:

The pros and cons of a four-day workweek

Demand for a four-day week, in other words, is significant among today’s workers.

The pros and cons of a four-day workweek

“There are definitely pros and cons associated with the four-day week, and it depends on which side of the coin you’re looking at,” Woods says.

For employers, considerations like customer service (who will field all the calls and requests?), productivity and efficiency can top the list of concerns. While data suggests productivity is rarely impacted, there are real costs associated with paying workers for 40 hours when they’re only working 32.

As detailed in an article by The Atlantic, several companies that have implemented the four-day week found that costs did increase but not by the same amount that hours decreased.

A company called Diamondback Covers, for example, reported a rise of only 3% in costs even though the drop in working hours was 12.5%. The reason? Working smarter, not harder. When people are motivated, they can figure out ways to maximize their concentration and productivity.

For employees, the twin carrots of flexibility and autonomy that come with post-pandemic workplace changes are hard to resist. To some extent, remote work offers these. But having that third weekend day can spell the difference between being happy in one’s job and experiencing improved work-life integration.

“Saturday might be the day that you run errands and do things you have to do. Then Sunday, you’re getting ready for the workweek. … [But a four-day workweek shifts] the narrative a little bit so that it’s like, ‘Wow, I get a good amount of time to focus on things besides catching up on chores on the weekend,’” Woods explains.

Then there’s the added benefit of improved mental health. This one is hard to quantify but almost universally cited as a benefit of shorter workweeks. Whether that’s because people report feeling more energized and focused at work, or because they claim it reduces burnout and boosts overall satisfaction, is anyone’s guess. (And may hinge upon how the survey question is phrased.)

Of course, no one can agree on everything, and that goes for three-day weekends as well. Woods says that not everyone will welcome a four-day workweek, whether that’s because they like the stability and predictability of getting up and going to work, or because they might become anxious or stressed about getting everything done in fewer days.

How to implement shorter workweeks

Some industries are better suited to four-day weeks than others. White-collar industries, particularly in the digital space, have largely been the ones to forge ahead so far.

Non-client facing industries, Woods adds, might also be more conducive to a shorter workweek.

But implementing such a significant change to working hours requires more than just enthusiasm and employer-employee buy-in. Companies have to determine, for example, how they might do more with less hours.

Woods uses her work as a career advisor as an example of what this might look like. “It may come down to creative scheduling with the team,” she acknowledges. “But could it be done? Absolutely.”

Companies must also consider whether they’d move to four 10-hour days (and still get those 40-hour working weeks) or 32-hour workweeks. And, if they opt for the latter, do employee salaries stay the same or decline?

Around the world, some countries are answering those questions in their own ways. Scotland, for example, is launching a four-day week without reducing pay. (The Scottish National Party will fund this program.) Spain is on a three-year plan to transition to 32-hour workweeks with the government making up the difference in salaries. Other countries, including Belgium, Japan, Iceland and the UAE, are all on similar tracks.

In the U.S., California and Pennsylvania have introduced legislation to create four-day weeks for certain populations. In Pennsylvania, the proposed legislation would evaluate the impact of a shorter workweek on 77,000 state employees.

Assembly Bill 2932 in California, meanwhile, would reduce the state’s standard working week to 32 hours for companies with more than 500 employees. One important caveat of the bill? Wages would be required to stay the same.

Unsurprisingly, not everyone’s on board. As noted by the California Chamber of Commerce, the bill would essentially raise hourly wages by 25%, to say nothing of the cost of overtime.

California is no stranger to shorter workweeks, though. The state’s labor code allows for alternative workweeks (think four 10-hour days) for any “work unit” in which two-thirds or more of the impacted employees vote in favor of it.

5 ways to seriously navigate office politics

Four-day workweek? Ask before you accept

While a four-day workweek may still be a fantasy more than a reality for most employees, it’s entirely possible that a career move down the line will include that option.

Should you find yourself in such a position, Woods recommends asking the following:

  1. What are the expectations around productivity?
  2. How is the workload managed during a four-day workweek?
  3. Given the shorter working week, how do employees approach deadlines and meetings?
  4. How do you handle being short-staffed?

“The idea of a four-day workweek sounds great, but if I’m going to be more stressed because of it, and I’m going to be more heavily micromanaged on the four days I’m in the office, then I might not want that,” Woods theorizes.

At the end of the day, a shortened working week may come into existence much the way the six-day week turned into a five-day week. That is to say, it may be the will of the people.

“For years, we were taught to believe that there’s only one way to work. But what we really learned from the pandemic is there are other ways to work,” Woods says.

Part of that is via remote work, yes. The other part is the gig economy. When you can make money by delivering groceries, employers have to do more to tap into what employees want, or they won’t attract the workforce they need to succeed.

“Employees know they have options,” Woods says, “and that’s one thing employers have to contend with right now.”

Want more career insights? Check out our blog!