Is a four-day workweek closer than we think?
“Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest” was the slogan of Robert Owen, a Welsh textile mill owner, social reformist, and labour activist who began actively advocating for a shorter workday in 1817. At the time, the working day could range from 10 to 16 hours, but Owen’s campaign failed to gain traction. His ideas were only widely adopted in Europe more than a century later, with most European countries getting on board by the 1920s.
It’s now 2022, and the work model that was instated 100 years ago still defines the structure of modern work. The 40-hour, five-day week has become the baseline standard across the board; from manufacturing and retail to finance and technology. Yet, despite the ubiquity and appeal of the five-day week, many companies have begun to question its value—particularly in industries and sectors defined by “knowledge work.”
Leading the way
Between 2015 and 2019, Iceland ran a trial with 1% of its population working four-day workweeks across a variety of occupations. After four years, alongside increased productivity, workers reported feeling less burnout and a healthier work-life balance. Following the trial, Icelandic trade unions secured a general reduction in working hours, and the option to reduce working for 86% of Iceland's working population.
In September 2021, Bolt, the “unicorn” company behind a popular one-click checkout solution, implemented Fridays off for their 280 employees. As of January 2022, Bolt announced that it’s making the change permanent. Eighty-four percent of employees had said the shorter workweeks improved their work-life balance, Bolt’s founder/CEO Ryan Breslow also believes employees ended up using their working hours more efficiently.
A trial of a four-day week has launched in the UK in a bid to measure whether employees are more productive with longer weekends. Thirty UK companies are taking part in a six-month trial of a four-day week, where employees will be paid the same amount as if they were working their usual five days. Orchestrated by 4 Day Week Global, think tank Autonomy and researchers at Cambridge University, Oxford University, and Boston College - will measure whether employees can operate at 100% productivity for 80% of the time. Similar trials run by 4 Day Week Global are also taking place this year in Ireland, the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, while the Scottish and Spanish governments also launch pilots this month.
Why companies are making the move?
What made sense on the manufacturing floors of factories in the early 20th century makes a lot less sense for today’s companies and workers. One of the driving forces behind the 4-day week is challenging the mistaken assumption that simply being at work means that meaningful work is being done. It’s been speculated that most workers only accomplish up to three hours of genuinely focused work per day. Longer hours are too often the go-to response when companies seek greater productivity or output. Ironically, working longer hours almost always means less work ends up getting done.
Worker productivity isn’t the only reason companies have cited for shortening workweeks. This proposed new way of working may help address one of the major problems employers face; employee turnover. Especially since 3 out of every four respondents surveyed by the SMS marketing company, SimpleTexting, stated they would consider leaving their current job if offered a position to work a four-day workweek. Additionally, a recent Gallup Report estimated that Millennial turnover costs the U.S. economy $30.5 billion annually. According to that same report, Millennials rank work-life balance high on their priority list when considering employment options. Because of this, a schedule allowing one additional non-work day a week may be a key driver in attracting and retaining high-performing team members.
Possibly the most convincing reason to move to a 4-day week is increasing the happiness of your team. It is common knowledge that happy employees get the best results, and having an extra day to themselves ensures a healthier work-life balance. Employees are less likely to be stressed or take sick leave, as they have plenty of time to rest and recover. As a result, they return to work feeling ready to take on new challenges.
Why wouldn’t you?
Before you send out the announcement and shorten your workweek, both consideration and preparation are necessary. Implementing a four-day workweek can be difficult as it requires the right support, technology, and workplace culture. Unavoidably, changes will encounter some challenges and disadvantages. Therefore it is important to reflect on the current state of your culture, team, and tech, ensuring that before you make a grand shift there is a solid foundation, guaranteeing that everybody involved can make the most out of this evolution.
It is currently truly exciting to be a part of the working population. For the first time in well over a century, a shift in focus is occurring; employees are no longer putting financial success at the top of the priority list, looking elsewhere for fulfilment and happiness. Therefore it makes sense that the approach to work evolves with the approach to life. Whether it is a four-day workweek, freelancing, or another adapted work model, change is happening and those that are able to adapt will be the ones to benefit and thrive.