Where the four-day work week movement started (and where it’s going)
The four-day work week is a condensed work schedule based on the theory that fewer hours “on the clock” will lead to more productivity, lower running costs, and happier employees.
It’s a business operations model that gained popularity following a four-year trial that tracked the reduced work week of 2,500 workers.
Businesses typically take two approaches to the four-day work week: having everyone take the same day off (e.g. the office is closed on Fridays) or a flexible approach where employees choose their own time off during the week.
The second option is only possible with a business culture that doesn’t keep employees stuck at their desk in synchronous meetings.
Importantly, the four-day work week does not entail cramming a normal 40-hour work week into four days, nor does it mean cutting wages to fit a reduced schedule. The four-day work week is a unique reduction of the common five-day work week without cutting pay and while working fewer hours per week.
Iceland was ripe for the four-day work week experiment. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) placed Iceland as one of the countries providing the least number of hours per week for leisure and personal care.
According to the Icelandic study, researchers found that “worker wellbeing increased across a range of indicators, from perceived stress and burnout to health and work-life balance.”
Other world leaders are taking note. Talks are happening across the globe in Spain, the UK, New Zealand and Japan. In California, Congressman Takano has proposed legislation in favor of the four-day work week.
Employees are pushing from their side, too. With over 30,000 signatures from around the world, 4 Day Week Global is campaigning to pilot more four-day programs supported by research from Harvard, Oxford, and Boston College.
During the pandemic, much of the working population faced entirely new challenges. With an always-on remote meeting schedule, compounded for many by a lack of childcare and homeschool obligations, much of the world’s workforce felt there was considerably less time for productivity during standard working hours (i.e. 9-5).
While this spontaneous experiment in remote work illuminated many issues (such as the need to be ‘always on’ that we referenced earlier), it also showed us just how much can be accomplished with a flexible work schedule.
“Normal life” is slowly resuming. The children are returning to school, and employers are grasping at a now-or-never chance to change up some of the dysfunctional working habits of before, like conducting too many meetings that ruin productivity and disrupt focused work.
The pre-pandemic results of four-day work week trials combined with the learnings of the past year are catalyzing a new way of working.
At Yac, we operate a four-day work week to give our people flexibility. With a 32-hour work week instead of a 40-hour work week, we’ve seen people get their work done while traveling the world, giving back to their communities, and starting passion projects.
Like Reyna, Lead UX Designer at Yac.
By fixing productivity issues, you can accomplish in fewer hours as much as you did in a five-day work week. Not to mention, produce better work. That’s why we’re making it easier for teams to communicate asynchronously and spend less time in meetings.
Why a four-day work week benefits both employers and employees alike
While the benefits of a four-day work week are perhaps more obvious for employees, it’s been seen to have largely positive impacts on employers as well.
According to a 2019 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 60% of organizations that implemented a four-day work week expressed gains in employee satisfaction and productivity resulting from fewer meetings.
SHRM also reported on a Seattle-based communications agency that cut its work week to four days after employees expressed signs of burnout. The company introduced the change back in 2017, ahead of the four-day work week’s rise to fame. Soon after, they saw an increase in retention, and productivity rose by roughly 20%.
Increased productivity is a tree that bears many fruits. As we mentioned at the start, the Henley Business School study found that less stress leads to a happier workforce. The side effect? A team that produces higher-quality work in a shorter amount of time and takes fewer sick days in the process (likely because of stronger mental wellbeing).
This all leads to cost savings. HBS found that businesses implementing a four-day work week are collectively saving over $127 trillion each year.
Aside from increased output and employee happiness, there are major environmental benefits to the four-day work week.
Cutting out the commute for millions of professionals around the world has done well for the planet. Rhodium Group estimated greenhouse gas emissions were up to 18% lower than pre-COVID levels, with transportation emissions in particular declining 28% when compared to the year before. We now have a chance to retain some of that loss and improve our collective carbon footprint.
What the four-day work week is not
Before we move on to how to implement a four-day work week at your company, it’s important to note that the added time off shouldn’t be viewed as less time on. Rather, the extra day is about giving your employees autonomy over their schedule so that they can work smarter, not to a lesser extent.
The four-day work week is a mindset shift that requires a strong commitment to getting work done in a more flexible arena. You can’t simply snap your fingers, remove a day (or several hours), and expect your employees to fall in line. Rather, you need to provide clarity, structure, and ongoing support.
Let’s dive into how to do just that.
How to make the transition to a four-day work week
Hopefully, by now, the four-day work week is piquing your interest—or at least you can see how it’s increasingly likely to be universally accepted.
For companies to succeed in transitioning to a four-day work week, they need to redesign how they work. The key to unlocking a shorter work week without losing productivity lies in four areas:
- Making meetings shorter (or eliminating them altogether)
- Introducing uninterrupted “deep work” time
- Adopting a more mindful approach to technology (avoiding the “always on” notification pings)
- A leadership focus on outcomes over presenteeism
While we think it’s great for employees and employers alike, there are definitely ways to make the transition smoother and more efficient for everyone.
Set expectations with your team
As with any large, company-wide change, transparency will take you far. Managing expectations from the start will be hugely important to a successful transition.
The four-day work week is a two-way street. Employees should enjoy a clear boundary set by the business (e.g. no Slacking or emailing Friday-Sunday), but they should also be expected to maintain their workload.
As the data shows, employers should not expect to see a decrease in productivity. In fact, most results from trials of a four-day work week point to the opposite.
Importantly, it’s also on you (leadership) to organize tasks in a way that gives people the flexibility they need to get their work done in a limited timeframe. This means decluttering their calendars from endless meetings and shifting to asynchronous communication to save valuable time, avoid miscommunication, and skyrocket efficiency.
The best way to set expectations appropriately is with a top-down approach. You can’t expect your team to buy into async communication and get jazzed about a four-day work week if you aren’t leading by example. Case in point, if you set a rule that nobody should send messages on their day off, you shouldn’t either.
How to measure effectiveness
To understand if the four-day work week looks as good on paper as it feels in culture, make sure to define what metrics are being used to measure effectiveness. These should be both quantitative and qualitative in nature, as a mixture of both usually provides the fullest picture.
Examples of metrics you can measure include:
- Mental wellbeing
- Work quality
- Talent quality
- Stress levels
- Employee churn
Decide early on what you plan to measure and how. For example, if you plan to measure productivity, you may want to look at:
- X number of projects completed per week, month, and quarter in a five-day work week compared to the four-day work week
- The number of meetings held in those respective time frames
- Sickness absence in those time frames
- The use of synchronous vs. asynchronous communication per task or project
- Employee happiness levels
Armed with this data, you can holistically understand what has changed pre and post-implementation. If productivity has improved, it’s likely a mixture of all of the above. Still, it’s good to dive into how much a boost in happiness vs. fewer meetings impacted output.
If productivity has not improved, you’ll also want to dig into why. It may not be that your staff is getting less done, but rather there’s a roadblock in the feedback process that’s causing delayed reviews. Perhaps you forgot to change an expectation that your managers can take two days to review submitted work which does not account for the shorter work week.
If everyone understands the expectations of the four-day work week and is ready to prove they can meet them, you’ll have a much greater chance of success.
Make communication shifts now
Taking an entire day out of your work week is going to look and feel different. If you operate in the same exact way you do now, you’re likely to fail.
Before you transition to the four-day work week, take a look at your meeting landscape, as well as how your company communicates internally.
Since nearly half of companies were entirely remote during 2020, odds are your employees have made a lot of progress in how they work away from the office. Some of the tools you used to streamline remote operations will come in very handy in the four-day work week.
For example, the ability to communicate asynchronously—or reacting to the same project, idea, or communication at different times—will be hugely important. This is especially true if you take the approach that some employees work Monday-Thursday, some Tuesday-Friday, etc.
Too many meetings are an issue for most organizations and one you’ll want to address before shortening your work week to maximize productivity on days at work. Tools like voice messaging can be just as effective as meetings in most workplace situations.
Test it first
You wouldn’t overhaul your website copy or product budget without testing first. Consider a shorter timeframe—but long enough to see employees settle in—like a few months, in which to test the four-day work week in your organization.
Make benchmarks known, and don’t commit to doing it forever until everyone feels comfortable with the test. Testing reduces friction, and as with all things in business, experiment and respond to the data.
There will be obstacles. Here’s how to overcome them.
Moving to a four-day work week is a huge change, and it won’t always feel easy—especially at the very beginning. With clear expectations and communication, you can set your organization up for success.
Build trust and set the example
As we’ve already addressed, the most glaring objection to the four-day work week is that business may suffer. But the data simply doesn’t support this narrative:
In order to take advantage of these benefits, however, you’ll want to focus on avoiding another potential pitfall: employees not actually taking the day (or allotted time frame) off.
Americans are known for their “live-to-work” mentality. For many employees, the four-day work week will be uncomfortable. For staff to feel like it’s ok to engage in leisure activities during a typical “workday”, follow that example-setting lifestyle we laid out earlier.
Think through the boundaries you might set and empower your company-wide leadership to do the same. If employees can trust that they are actually allowed—and supposed—to take a three-day weekend, they’ll take the necessary time to re-energize—and that’s where you’ll truly reap the benefits of a shorter work week.
According to the same HBS study we referenced above, employees that actually take the day off reinvest it into themselves, their family, and their passions. This includes spending quality time with loved ones, taking up a new hobby, volunteering, or embarking on a side hustle:
The better your team feels about their life outside of work, the better they’ll feel at work. This work/life balance is physically and psychologically critical, so make sure you stress the importance of it and set the tone by embracing that day off yourself.
Communicate openly about—and allow time for—change
One interesting approach to implementing a shorter workday that was met with mixed results occurred at Digital Enabler, a small, 16-person German-based company.
The CEO recognized that an eight-hour day isn’t fully necessary when you consider the many breaks workers take throughout the day, knowing they have to be in their seats until at least 5 PM regardless of what they’ve accomplished.
The CEO locked away workers' phones and discouraged distractors like social media and idle chit-chat. The thought was that with fewer time sucks, employees should have no problem accomplishing in five hours what they typically had eight hours to do.
For some employees, the pressure to accomplish the same amount of work in fewer hours—not to mention a stark change in culture—was too much, and they left the company.
While it’s reasonable to assume that certain things will need to change to accomplish more with less, it’s important that these decisions not be made in a silo. What sounds reasonable (phones = distraction) may feel dictatorial to autonomous employees who feel patronized.
Whatever changes you decide to make, be sure to communicate them clearly and check in with your team to see what’s working and what may need a second look.
Change takes time. So keep an open door and an open mind to ensure you can course-correct if you find you’re steering in the wrong direction.
Don’t be afraid to radically change your culture around meetings
We may have just implied that you should be careful about making radical changes, but there’s a difference between locking people’s phones up and taking a critical lens to how your business currently operates.
We’ve pointed this out already, but it’s so important that we feel it’s worth repeating. Meetings need an overhaul and long past time to take back your workday.
The long and short of it is that as technology evolves, so too should the way we think about meetings. Long gone are the days where it’s crucial to have every stakeholder in a room because there is no other way to communicate.
A notorious time drain, just about anyone you talk to can regale you with horror stories of pointless meetings. The standup in which you had to listen to everyone’s to-do list in excruciating detail, the team meeting without an agenda—you get it. But there’s a better way.
As we mentioned before, asynchronous communication will come in handy as everyone adjusts to flexible work. Having the ability to respond to someone via screen share, voice memo, or video, increases the ways we can communicate without scheduling time on the calendar.
With a platform like Yac, you can empower your employees with autonomy and the tools to communicate effectively without getting sucked into unnecessary meetings.
The four-day work week is on its way, and in many places, it’s already here. You can fight the inevitable or get excited for its benefits, of which there are many.
As with any big changes, there will be growing pains and obstacles, but with the right strategy and mindset, you can get excited for the positive changes you’re likely to see by shortening your organization’s work week.
Wondering how Yac can help you make the transition to a four-day work week? Book a free demo to see Yac in action.