A disruptive work model is making major inroads in businesses around the globe. Companies in Japan, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the U.S. and other countries have adopted the four-day workweek. Many employers and employees have welcomed the change. The reported benefits include increased productivity, better work/life balance and improved mental health.
To be sure, the transition to four-day workweeks is challenging, and it might not be right for all employers. But in a labor market where open positions still outnumber available workers, the four-day workweek could give companies an advantage in hiring because employees get the flexibility they want.
Ladders, a San Francisco-based recruitment firm for executives and professionals, recently surveyed more than 400 job candidates who are active on its search service platform and found that 79 percent say they have already left or would leave a five-day workweek job for a four-day workweek job, provided there is no drop in salary.
"While this strongly indicates an edge in hiring for employers that offer four-day workweeks, nothing is set in stone," says Ladders CEO Dave Fisch.
The decision to try a shorter workweek should be made after "a careful weighing of the pros and cons for their businesses," he advises.
However, employers that don't pursue a shorter workweek may want to "consider other flexible options, or they may find themselves struggling to keep and replace talented people going forward," Fisch says.
Paying with Time
Paying employees with time is quickly becoming a more common tactic among employers who can't, or don't want to, compete on compensation alone. A survey of 157 U.S. executives taken earlier this year by HR advisory firm Gartner found 15 percent are experimenting with a four-day workweek or alternative work schedules.
In Great Britain, more than 3,300 workers at 70 British companies, ranging from small consultancies to large financial firms, have been working a four-day week with no loss of pay in what organizers of the program call the world's biggest trial of a shorter workweek.
Early returns of the six-month British pilot program have been positive. The majority of the firms reported it is working well, according to the BBC, with 95 percent saying productivity has remained the same or improved.
The British program follows several other shorter workweek trials in different countries. "Trials by big companies such as Microsoft in Japan and Buffer in the U.S. have shown that a four-day week boosts productivity," the U.K.'s 4 Day Week Campaign posted on its website.
The pilot program, which is scheduled to wrap up this year, is organized by the nonprofit 4 Day Week Global, with offices in London and New York City. It's run in partnership with the London-based think tank Autonomy, the U.K.'s 4 Day Week Campaign and researchers at Cambridge University, Oxford University and Boston College.
Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
The researchers will analyze how employees respond to having an extra day off, studying areas such as stress and burnout, job and life satisfaction, health, sleep, energy use and travel.
Joe O'Connor, chief executive of 4 Day Week Global, says the pilot program puts the U.K. at the forefront of the four-day workweek movement. "As we emerge from the pandemic, more and more companies are recognizing that the new frontier for competition is quality of life, and that reduced-hour, output-focused working is the vehicle to give them a competitive edge," he told TheGuardian.
But maybe not. An article in the Harvard Business Review recently pointed out that a study of New Zealand's move to the four-day workweek found that "not only was work intensified following the change, but so too were managerial pressures around performance measurement, monitoring and productivity," according to the article's authors, researchers Emma Russell at the University of Sussex, Caroline Murphy at the University of Limerick and Esme Terry at Leeds University.
"The New Zealand four-day workweek trial rings some alarm bells in that reductions in working days did not necessarily create well-being benefits as workers struggled to meet the demands of their job roles," the researchers note. "It is perhaps telling that much of the publicity around the success of Microsoft Japan's four-day workweek trial rested on how productivity increased substantially during the study period. Employers may need to be careful about promoting outputs over well-being if they want to be seen as investing in their workforce's work/life balance."
Alicia Garcia, chief culture officer at MasterControl, a global technical support company based in Salt Lake City, favors greater flexibility around scheduled hours as an alternative to shorter workweeks.
"The biggest issue with a four-day workweek is that it is still rigid," she says. Whether it is a four- or five-day workweek, "the exact days and times employees are required to work are fixed."
When approached by employees, she says, "the most common request is for 'flexibility.' They ask if they can pick up children from school every day and log back in, take an afternoon exercise class, or take a break when the day is feeling stressful. Rarely does the number of hours an employee works surface in these discussions."
She adds that "doctor appointments, dentist visits and school performances don't always fall on the same day of the week."
Garcia advises companies to trust employees to schedule flexibility into their workweeks. "Supervisors and managers know if work is getting done and getting done well. They should be empowered to allow flexibility in their teams," she says. "By developing a culture where managers are trusted to make the best decisions and, in turn, trust their teams to ensure work is covered, companies can develop future senior leaders and recruit the best talent in the market." —S.M.
For managers, the four-day workweek can be a way to offer employees more personal time while holding on to structured, set work hours.
"Managers like the idea of simplicity and clarity," says Brian Kropp, managing director in the talent and organizational performance practice at Accenture. "A four-day workweek is a lot easier to manage than a lot of the other flexibility ideas that are out there, because even if you change hours to 8:30 to 5:30, Monday through Thursday, or whatever you pick, you're going to be able to e-mail someone or call or message, and they should respond pretty quickly." He notes that other flexibility options require a lot more effort on the part of managers to manage.
As companies explore the concept of a four-day workweek, they are finding buy-in from managers who "have to feel like they have a level of control, because managers have responsibilities for outcomes," says Jackie Reinberg, who heads the absence and disability practice of consulting firm WTW. Many managers, she says, may prefer to know, from week to week, precisely which days people are working.
Unlike flexible work arrangements that can benefit the employee but not necessarily the entire team, a compressed, four-day workweek has broader benefits for an organization.
"Managers tend to tell me they like the idea in no small part because they benefit as much as everyone in the company," says Ben Jackson, founder of Hear Me Out, an HR strategy company. He notes that managers are talking about the four-day workweek "constantly" in Slack channels and chat groups that he is a part of.
Still, Kropp says that while the number of companies offering a four-day workweek is growing, it is "still a relatively very small number." He says there is a key reason why managers are hesitant.
Because most companies that are adopting a shorter workweek are not decreasing pay, they tend to expect the same output as before the hours were reduced, Kropp says. Problems could arise in the future if companies hire new people who start by working 32 hours per week. If a 40-hour workweek is implemented again in the future, those employees may then expect more money, he says.
Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of Shorter (Public Affairs, 2020), says that "some who offer a four-day week require a salary reduction at the same time, and others might make it four 10-hour days. It's safe to say that that sort of option is more common now, as hybrid work and other kinds of arrangements have become more standard."
The number of organizations that have adopted four-day workweeks, while small, is striking for its diversity, he says. "It includes companies worth billions [as well as those] employing hundreds of people in a variety of industries—everything from pest control companies and restaurants to software firms to law firms."
Another issue is assessing whether a company has structures in place that can support compressed hours, Pang says. As much as the idea is appealing for managers, "it is feckless to move to a four-day workweek with no idea of how it will affect workflow," he says. "There needs to be a detailed and informed understanding of different people's workflow."
But some managers, he says, tend to avoid setting up tight structures within the companies because it forces "difficult conversations" about performance flaws. Ultimately, he says, managers are very interested in the idea because they're worried about burnout.
"The four-day workweek feels like the single best thing managers can do to address a range of issues related to burnout," he says.
"It's going to take work," adds WTW's Reinberg, who notes that once a schedule is worked out, everyone's roles and responsibilities need to be clearly articulated. Schedules can't be amorphous, she says. "Making this change requires a level of discipline."
Stephen Miller, CEBS, is an online writer/editor for SHRM who focuses on compensation and benefits.
Holly Rosenkrantz is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
SHRM provides advice and resources to help business leaders institute and manage flexible work arrangements.
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