The Huddle: Does the Four-Day Workweek Have Legs?

By Bob Hampe

If you’ve been on LinkedIn at any point in the last year, you’ve likely encountered multiple mentions of the four-day workweek. While a few naysayers cite “laziness” as a driver behind these conversations, the truth is far more simple.

Speaking in terms of work mostly conducted digitally, we’re more productive as a species and a workforce than at any point in human history. With that increased productivity, and the pandemic’s disruption, some businesses have tried out the four-day workweek—with incredible results. 

Actall prides itself on providing an empathetic, forward-thinking work environment, and when conversations like this arise, we pay attention. Here’s why the four-day workweek is on our radar. 

The Four-Day Workweek: Why It’s (Back) in the News

You may recall that before the pandemic (anyone actually remember living in those times?) the Japanese division of Microsoft experimented with a four-day workweek—and saw a 40% increase in productivity. Workers received the same paychecks, and cited significantly better rates of work-life balance and wellbeing. 

Now, well past the pandemic’s start in 2020, burnout is as bad as it’s ever been. Nurses, teachers, and front-line workers are still bearing the brunt of this burnout, as they have throughout the entire pandemic. But white-collar “knowledge workers,” frustrated by mandates to return to offices or overwhelmed by performance expectations in the face of one global catastrophe after another are burned out, too. As a result, many businesses are eyeing the four-day workweek as a way to improve wellbeing, retain employees, and drive down costs. 

The pandemic significantly disrupted our work patterns—from where we work, to when. There is no “back to normal,” so why not define the future of work on better, more human-centric terms? 

Shifting from Five Days to Four

We may take the 40-hour, five-day workweek as a fact of life. But the truth is, it’s an invented, antiquated construct—and it should be adjusted, as our work culture has shifted. In fact, it was one such culture change, led by automaker Henry Ford in 1926, that resulted in a drop from six-day workweeks to five days with standardized, eight-hour shifts. 

Labor unions had been fighting for standardized eight-hour workdays for decades, with successes seen for government workers and some private-sector employees. But until Ford instituted the culture shift, six workdays were the standard. And after the change, arguments that mirror today’s abounded: People were hesitant to embrace this new workweek, citing concerns about laziness and more. 

While we’re grateful for the tireless work of labor unions and Ford himself in creating more humane workweek considerations, there have been no significant changes made to the standardized 40-hour workweek since 1938, when the Fair Labor Standards Act was signed into law. At the time, a 40-hour, five-day workweek made sense, especially in single-income households with someone, typically a married woman, home to perform domestic labor and parenting duties. 

Times, obviously, have changed. A single full-time income, especially at minimum wage, is not enough to support a family. And the nature of work in tech, management, marketing, and other sectors has shifted rapidly in recent years to dispersed, digital-based “knowledge” work. It’s long past time for an update to the way our workweek is structured. 

Four-Day Workweek Success Stories 

Don’t just take it from me. Major organizations in the United States and entire countries in Europe have experimented successfully with the four-day workweek, and the results are remarkable: 

  • Employees of social-media company Buffer reported huge increases (91%) in workplace satisfaction after the switch; 
  • Iceland and Belgium have instituted practices that either outright mandate four-day workweeks or allow workers to request them; 
  • UpBuild, Wildbit, and Atlassian have successfully experimented with the practice, and here’s a rundown of 50 other organizations that are signing on to the four-day week.

In many instances, results included less reported burnout, increased productivity, higher engagement with workplaces, lower turnover, and—perhaps most importantly—higher overall quality of life for workers. For a deeper dive, check out The 4 Day Week by Andrew Barnes.

Potential Issues, and Implementation 

There are some caveats to consider. Shifting to a four-day workweek requires a significant shift in mentalities, especially at the executive level. As in any other major workplace initiative, leadership must come from the top. And with executives generally known for their commitment to the workplace and for keeping long hours, this shift could take considerable effort. 

Another required mentality shift: Evaluate workers on the quality of work they produce, rather than the hours they work. Finding ways to work smarter, not harder should be prioritized, otherwise workers will fall into the same habits of checking boxes and filling hours with busywork in an effort to live up to managerial expectations for availability and “commitment.” 

What’s one common way that experiments with four-day workweeks fail? Keeping the same amount of hours—40—but cramming them into four days. Burnout still plagued businesses, although at lower levels (three-day weekends do make a huge difference). 

That’s why legislation introduced in 2021 in the U.S. House of Representatives to cap workweeks at 32 hours got so much attention. Again, the focus should be on quality—not quantity. 

If you’re interested in giving the four-day workweek a shot, there’s no harm in experimenting. Develop a plan, give it a try, and solicit honest feedback from employees. The nature of work is changing every day, and it’s time we changed with it.