Getting the 4-day Workweek Right

Hail to the 4-day workweek! Or at least that’s what the initial, albeit limited, data shows.

According to The Wall Street Journal, 61 UK businesses—ranging from banks to fast-food restaurants—experimented with giving their workers one paid day off a week to see if they could get just as much done while working less.

The result? A whopping 90% of participants said they’d continue to experiment. Eighteen companies said they’d make the change permanent. Executives in the study said they loved the idea of seeking new and better ways to work. So be it if a shorter workweek can improve employee well-being and loyalty while not sacrificing productivity.

There have been whispers of a shortened workweek for years now. The post-pandemic work environment has spurred business leaders to think outside the box to solve significant burnout and staffing issues.

Early movers need to get it right if the 4-day workweek is to catch on in the US. Success involves rolling out a well-planned change management program that considers every potential benefit and disadvantage for employees and the organization. Most of all, the shortened workweek must go hand-in-hand with a “work smarter” culture.  

Work smarter

But will the four-day week mean employees will have to work harder to squeeze the same amount of work into a shorter period? According to the same UK study, the answer was no: most employees didn’t have to work more intensively. Participating organizations focused instead on efficiency, identifying and addressing inefficient practices and habits such as eliminating unnecessary meetings or anything else that pulls people away from time spent on completing tasks.   

Keep in mind, too, that although most people will insist they need every minute of the 40-hour week, the reality may be very different. An eye-opening study back in 2018 found that most salaried employees only do about three hours of real work per eight-hour day, or 15 hours of ‘real’ work per week. This isn’t to suggest they are on Tiktok for the rest of the week – rather, it’s likely their time is drained away by useless “busywork”, manual tasks that should have been automated, or unproductive meetings as mentioned above. Even a modest increase in the amount of real work completed per day will go a long way toward making up for the loss of a fifth workday.

Managers can help employees boost productivity by teaching them how to prioritize tasks and create a culture that recognizes busyness does not equal productivity. Employees should also feel empowered to say “no” to any request that will take them away from their core mission of getting tasks completed.

What does failure look like in a four-day workweek?

Be careful not to inadvertently create a frantic culture of busyness where employees feel pressured to race the clock to get everything done. Beware also of further blurring the boundaries between work-hours and non-work hours – an emerging concern for remote workers in particular.

Another sign of a failed experiment would be when emails are bouncing around all evening. Fewer working days should not mean those days become longer – perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the rise of the four-day working week is being accompanied in Europe and elsewhere by the emergence of “right to disconnect” laws.

The technology factor

It’s unlikely we would be having this conversation if it hadn’t been for the pandemic. The Covid crisis not only unlocked rusted-shut company policies around flexible working but spurred an unprecedented flurry of digital transformation that is continuing to this day. A Spanish study found that digital transformation has the potential to boost productivity in SMEs by as much as 25%; this alone would more than balance out the hours lost by shifting to a four-day week.

Here are some ways technology will help your organization make the four-day workweek a success:

  • With the help of automation, many repetitive and time-consuming tasks can be completed in a fraction of the time, enabling employees to accomplish more in a shorter period.
  • Collaboration tools such as video conferencing, project management software, and instant messaging platforms can help employees communicate and collaborate more effectively from any location.
  • Americans spend just under an hour commuting to and from work every weekday. Remote work means this wasted time can be put to more productive use while dramatically improving work-life balance.  
  • With the help of data analytics, companies can better understand how their employees work by tracking productivity, identifying areas where employees may need additional support or training, and even predicting which employees may be at risk of burnout.
  • Finally, artificial intelligence can help automate and optimize many aspects of work, including scheduling, task management, and even decision-making.

Talent attraction

As the WSJ points out, most companies that have experimented with a four-day week are small employers, with larger companies yet to adopt the concept.

This represents an opportunity. An SME attempting to draw from the same talent pool as the likes of Google or Apple will have little chance of competing in terms of raw salaries, but can compete with flexible offerings such as fully remote work or a four-day workweek. It also signals to potential candidates that your organization is willing to experiment, adapt, and move ahead of the curve.