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Is the Shorter Workweek for Everyone?

Japan and New Zealand experiments turn attention to 4-day workweeks

A group of friends toasting beer in a bar.

In August, Microsoft Japan experimented with a four-day workweek for its 2,300 employees. They were given five Fridays off, with no reduction in pay. Productivity rose nearly 40 percent.

Last year, Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand company that manages trusts, wills and estate planning, tried shorter workweeks. About 250 employees worked four eight-hour days each week for two months, with no cut in pay. Company leaders saw such a marked increase in worker engagement and satisfaction—with no drop in productivity—that they decided this past October to adopt the abbreviated schedule full time.

Fifteen percent of U.S. organizations offer four-day workweeks of 32 hours or less to all employees for all or part of the year, according to a 2019 Employee Benefits report by the Society for Human Resource Management. Some companies compress the standard 40 hours of work into four days, while others simply lop off one day and require four eight-hour days, usually with no cut in pay.

In fact, the 40-hour, five-day workweek is "outdated," according to 70 percent of U.S. workers recently surveyed by The Workforce Institute at Kronos Inc. Many workers feel they could get their work done in less than the typical time allotted.

Nearly half (45 percent) of the respondents said it would take them less than five hours a day to do their jobs if they were able to work uninterrupted. 


How Does Working Fewer Days Make Employees More Productive?

Microsoft Japan leaders attributed the success of their four-day workweek experiment to a few things: Many meetings were eliminated or truncated. And employees, knowing they had to fit five days of work into four, became more economical and efficient with their time. "By shortening the time when employees are at work, you're forcing them to hyper-prioritize and cut out low-value work and activities to be more efficient," said Joyce Maroney, executive director at The Workforce Institute. "That could range from shortening or canceling meetings altogether—similar to how Microsoft in Japan moved standard meeting times from one hour to 30 minutes—or spending less time on administrative work, checking e-mail or perusing social media accounts."

Cutting down on administrative work could lead to greater creativity, observed Judy Siguaw, associate dean of research and faculty development at East Carolina University's College of Business in Greenville, N.C. And a shorter workweek may yield health benefits—less stress, more time for exercise, happier relationships—that could lead to higher productivity, she said.

Shorter workweeks could also be a successful talent-attraction strategy, Maroney said.

"With Japan's unemployment rate around 2.2 percent, it's highly likely this pilot program was launched in an effort to attract and retain talent," she said. "You're telling your workers, 'Hey, we trust you to get the job done.' If workers feel respected and trusted, it's likely they'll be more dedicated and simply work harder."

And short workweeks can benefit employers, said Julia Pollak, a labor economist at employment marketplace ZipRecruiter.

"First, reducing the number of days employees are in every week translates to a substantial reduction in operating costs," Pollak said. "Shortening the workweek can also lead to greater gender diversity in the workplace, as women candidates often choose industries that offer better hours and work/life balance."

Not for Everyone

A shorter workweek may be ideal for some jobs and industries but not others, workplace experts said.

It might work best, for instance, for employees whose projects have long lead times or don't require a lot of teamwork, said David Lewis, president and CEO of OperationsInc, a human resources outsourcing and consulting firm based in Norwalk, Conn. Typically, that means professionals and office workers.

Where Siguaw works in Greenville, most dentists' and veterinarians' offices are using a four-day workweek. "Hence, any organization that requires and controls customer appointments" might easily adopt a shorter workweek, she said.

But in the retail, restaurant and hospitality industries—where many workers are paid by the hour and must respond to customers—a shortened workweek could be tricky. Nor might it be ideal in manufacturing, where success is often measured by how much is produced each day, or for teachers.

Maroney noted an oft-cited experiment in a Swedish nursing home, which found that, when nurses' shifts were reduced to six hours a day, the nurses were happier, better rested and more productive. But the shorter workweek also meant the home had to hire several extra nurses. This experiment ended when government funding for it ran out.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Flexible Work Arrangements.]

Customers May Not Like It

Even at places where a shorter workweek might be possible, customers may not appreciate having to wait for service, Siguaw said.

"Customer needs may not be met if the office is only open four days a week," she noted. "It is frustrating enough to have to wait across a two-day weekend for a company to respond. Now this would expand to a three-day weekend. Would that generate enough customer dissatisfaction that they defect?"

In 2008, state government workers in Utah were allowed to cut back to working four days a week. Despite a rise in productivity and employee morale, taxpayers were annoyed that they couldn't get in touch with government offices on Fridays. Eventually, Utah required state employees to return to the five-day workweek.

Key to making a four-day workweek successful, experts said, is high-performing workers, Maroney said.

"If you move to a shortened workweek, there will inevitably be times employees will need to put in longer hours to complete a project or best serve customers, and your high-performers will naturally be accountable to the company, themselves, their colleagues and customers."