The four-day workweek: Is it and can it be for real?

A study in the UK found that, after shortening the workweek, things were better for employees, and at least no worse for employers.
By: | March 14, 2023

No doubt you have read many of the stories in the business press about the studies going on in the UK and other countries where employers agreed to switch to a four-day workweek—and it is going really well. Is there a reason to think this is the wave of the future?

To start, we need to be clear about what the UK study means by a “four-day week.” This is not four 10-hour days or four in-office days and one working remote. It is four days of work with pay for five days. More incredible than you thought, right?  The idea is that we can be so much more productive if we work less that we will get done in four days what we had gotten done in five.

Why would we think that is possible?  The experiment is not so clear on that one. Is this really an exchange of favours? Our bosses cut our working hours, so we are going to reciprocate with greater effort. That is less sustainable in the long run, especially when new workers come in knowing that the deal is four days. Or is it that we like the four-day arrangement so much that we will work harder to make sure that it is successful and we can keep it going? Ironically, the implicit threat that the arrangement may not continue is what makes that go. In that sense, this is like incentive pay with the advantage for the employer that it does not necessarily cost any more—but the disadvantage that the employer gains little from the higher productivity.

The goal of doing something about the growing amount of work we have to do has proven elusive. US employers have been somewhat open to flexibility as to where people work, when they do it and support for the stress it creates but not about the amount of work we do. Most managerial employees are struggling to get back down to a five-day work week: Thirty percent of US managers report working on the weekends, and that does not count evening work.

This experiment was not tried in customer-facing jobs, in production work or for hourly paid jobs, or presumably for services that bill by the hour. It applied only to the kind of office jobs where you can work remotely and where you can be more productive in the kind of tasks you perform if you are really motivated. It was also done among reasonably small employers—with an average of 50 employees, mostly agencies of various kinds.

The first thing to ask in all studies like these is, who are we studying, who is the sample?  To be in this study, an organisation had to agree to put in place a four-day week and go through two months of preparation. In other words, this is a study of employers that already decided to move to a four-day week and are pretty committed to make it succeed, perhaps because they saw that it suited their unique operations. It just does not say much that generalises to organisations that are not like that.

In the UK version, the biggest study, participants rated the experience very positively, but some of that could also be The Hawthorne Effect: We respond to the novelty of an experiment, the support of the experimenters and the peer group, and so forth. Revenue was up slightly during the period, but so was inflation.

There are some puzzling results: Twenty-eight percent of employees reported that their working time did not go down, which was supposed to be the point of the intervention. Seventy-one percent reported a decrease in burnout symptoms, but surprisingly 22% reported an increase. Turnover was down, sleep generally improved, work/life conflicts got better; overall, employees clearly want to keep the arrangement. It would be a shocker if that was not the case. Most of the employers reported that they were at least going to continue the experiment. That is not a big surprise either if they were already committed to doing it at the start.

As with remote work, though, the big finding is that things were better for employees and at least no worse for the employers.

READ: Australia considers nationwide four-day workweek trial

What should we take away from this? One conclusion is a reminder that most organisations have a fair amount of room to improve productivity, and employees could make that happen if they get benefit from it. It takes leaders who are willing to make an investment to improve things for employees, and they could probably do similar things with other innovations that swapped greater productivity for benefits like incentive pay and profit-sharing.

What happens in the long run? These arrangements need trust to work—trust on the employee’s part that the benefits will continue. In a tight labour market, employers may be willing for employees to get most of the benefit from the programme as a means of retaining them. Will the owners/shareholders/directors eventually push for the companies to get a bigger share of the benefits from a four-day week, say by paying their employees less or, in a downturn, cutting employees and returning to the five-day week?

If that happens, the magic ends.

Peter Cappelli is HRE’s Talent Management columnist and a fellow of the National Academy of Human Resources. This article was first published on Human Resource Executive.