Think about how you feel as a three-day weekend draws near. The joy of not seeing your desk for a full 72 hours... it’s an all-consuming thought as the clock nears quitting time. Now imagine you had a three-day weekend every. single. week.
The 4-Day Workweek Is Real
The idea of a 4-day workweek seems impossible, with long to-do lists and increasing demands on performance. It’s an especially challenging notion for Millennials who now make up the largest population of the U.S. workforce. This cohort is becoming known as the hardest working members of the labor force, willing to work longer-than-normal hours and sacrifice days off for the sake of career success.
The personal sacrifices made by this group (and many other Americans) are a clear example of why the U.S. ranks quite low in work-life balance according to the OECD Better Life Index.
The truth, however, is that as many as 43% of companies (according to the Society for Human Resource Management) are subscribing to the philosophies of the 4-day workweek, and loving it.
35-Hour Weeks and Paid Overtime
Some countries instituting the 4-day workweek are seeing its positive effect on their citizens’ well-being. In France, where only 8% of the labor force reports working very long hours and the country reports exceedingly high work-life balance scores, a 35-hour workweek is fairly common. About one-third of the country’s businesses enforce the hourly cap on their employees, while others, typically white-collar jobs, are compensated with overtime pay and time off for any work over 35 hours.
Unfortunately for the French, the law is under scrutiny as unemployment rates soar above 10% and productivity, which showed an initial increase after its implementation in the year 2000, is declining. Still, the country’s labor force remains among the most productive in the world.
Given the evidence of such effects on productivity and work-life balance, many U.S. companies are experimenting with their own version of reduced working hours. Businesses, and even government departments, are reducing in-office hours and days to increase employee engagement and happiness.
KPMG, one of the “big four” auditors, made waves in 2009 for its introduction of a compressed workweek option to its U.S.-based employees. Barbara Wankoff, KPMG's director of workplace solutions, commented on the decision, saying "[Employee] satisfaction goes way up when they have control over their time. And it increases employee morale and productivity and retention."
KPMG is in the minority of large companies offering reduced working days, as it’s more commonly found in smaller teams.
Fact: Happy People Are More Productive
Opponents still question the positive effect of a shortened workweek on company and employee productivity and whether the other trade offs are worth it.
Offering a 4-day workweek schedule has a clear effect on work-life balance, as evidence from France suggests. Similarly, there are other instances which indicate that more hours spent working do not lead to better results.
In fact, less can lead to more productivity, as is the case with Sweden’s 6-hour work day. According to Swedish companies implementing the time cap, employees who report high levels of happiness credit the balance between work and personal lives, giving them more time with their families and friends and to spend on other creative pursuits. For those seeking justification for a condensed workweek, studies show a direct correlation between happiness and productivity.
In an op-ed for the New York Times, Basecamp founder Jason Fried acknowledges that “better work gets done in four days than in five.” This is the justification behind his company’s May to October 32-hour, 4-day workweek. Like Basecamp’s 32-hour weeks, the U.S. Government Accountability Office has adopted a new schedule for its team. Employees of this public sector office work eight 9-hour days and one 8-hour day before taking one off. Others choose to work four 10-hour days each week.
4-Day Workweek: Dream vs. Reality
A reduced workweek may have a positive effect on productivity, but there are tradeoffs that must be acknowledged. Nate Reusser, founder of Reusser Design, notes the difficulties a 4-day workweek poses on scheduling, especially if an employee is out sick. Unforeseen absences of team members make reallocating work within fewer days a challenge. Yet Reusser believes the challenge is worth it.
Similarly, a reduced workweek may make scheduling shifts more challenging. Shifts may overlap thus increasing labor dollars, or coverage may not be available for the five days the majority of U.S. businesses and consumers operate.
In companies that simply reduce the numbers of days worked but not hours, employees may be more likely to burn out as two additional hours are added to their days. It may also conflict with childcare and impose new financial burdens on working parents and caregivers.
The Atlantic has further questioned issues of financial burden and shiftwork, suggesting that the 4-day workweek is really only applicable to certain types of careers, and within certain (read: higher) income brackets.
In short, if you’re working at a business that needs to be open and available to the public round the clock, or are not being paid a salary that compensates for less hours worked, a shorter workweek might be nothing more than a pipe dream.
So Are Four Days Are Better Than Five?
In a fireside chat with Google CEO Larry Page, he noted that anytime you ask a group of workers if they’d like more time off, they will undoubtedly answer yes.
Jason Fried has readily acknowledged that Basecamp’s annual 4-day workweek period, which aims to foster creativity by reducing burnout and fatigue, makes them “an outlier.” And while Sweden is seeing a ton of benefits from their 6-hour work day program, France is looking at extending workers’ hours in order to combat its high unemployment rate, which is seeing 1 in 4 young adults without a steady income.
The theory is that teams are happier to work for a company that values their time and are equally as happy and empowered to put in the extra effort while on the clock. So, despite the initial shock at cutting down worktime, a shortened workweek might be something to consider if your company fits within the type of work that can realize the benefits for employees and employers alike.