Does the 4-day work week really work?

There’s nothing quite like taking a Friday off work, is there? Whether it’s the Good Friday bank holiday, a cheeky block of annual leave, or a sick day (legitimate, we hope!), the accompanying weekend is a joy nobody would give up.

On the rare occasions we do get to experience the short week and long weekend, we’re usually more rested, happier, and more eager to get to work when we return. There’s more opportunity to catch up on life admin, spend time with friends and family, get out into nature, or sit around doing nothing.

But surely we can’t do that all the time? There’s so much work that needs doing, isn’t there?

Well, some pioneering companies are starting to experiment with shorter working weeks in a bid to improve their workers’ lives - and therefore, their productivity. Let’s find out if it’s a good idea or not.

The Four Day Work Week

The important thing to note in these projects is that staff are being paid no differently than when they worked 5 days. The point of these programs is to fit essential work into less time by being smarter and more efficient.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen talk about 4-day work weeks that are still made of the same hours - that is, working 2 extra hours Monday-Thursday to make up for a Friday off. This article in The Conversation shows how workers’ health can sometimes increase with the extra day of rest (and one less return journey to work). But ’not all hours are created equal’, and not many people can effectively work for 10 hours straight, 4 days in a row. The stress of cramming it all in can outweigh the benefits of the extra time off.

(And by the way, we're not talking about the 4-hour work week - that’s something entirely different.)

It’s the reduced-hours-for-full-pay model that’s the most interesting - and it seems to work.

Perpetual Guardian, an estate planning company in New Zealand, tested a four-day fully-paid work week during March and April last year. 78% of staff said they were able to successfully manage their work-life balance throughout the experiment (an increase of 24% compared to before). It worked so well that since then, they’ve implemented the program permanently.

Efficiency was a focus when starting the program. Management talked to each employee about how they were going to complete their essential tasks in the shorter timeframe, and soon enough, workers figured out their own preferred ways of doing things. Some used new software to save time, and some used monitoring tools to look at where their time was being spent, eliminating unproductive things like web surfing or frivolous meetings.

Staff were also allowed to choose their extra day off (it didn’t have to be Friday) and experiment with work times other than the standard 9-5. This meant office use was more spread out, meaning it was quieter overall, helping people to work better throughout the day.

Making it work

The Monday-Friday, 9-5 office job isn’t going anywhere, at least for a while. It’s deeply ingrained into working culture despite not being particularly ideal for every type of job. We’ve been conditioned to think that working longer hours equates to working harder, and therefore being productive. But thankfully, attitudes are slowly starting to change.

I went down to a 4 day week once, working a management job in an office a few years back. When talking to HR about the arrangement, which involved a 20% pay cut to go along with the 20% cut in hours, I was asked “Do you think you’ll be able to get all your work done in the shorter week?” Not wanting to rock the boat (it was my idea initially), I said yes, of course. But really, I should have said no - I’ll get 80% of my work done, because that’s what you’ll be paying me for.

It can be a bit glib to promote disruptive ways of working like this as though stuffy non-believers are stuck in the past. Realistically it won’t work for every business - the Wellcome Trust tried to implement it for their hundreds of staff but found that keeping it fair for everyone was just too complex.  

UK workers have the longest working week in Europe, but can’t boast the strongest economy, so something needs to change. Maybe we should be working smarter, not harder.

Photo by Nicole Honeywill on Unsplash