Why we need to consider switching to a 4-day workweek

Iceland has made recent headlines by declaring the world’s largest ever trial of a shorter working week in the public sector a resounding success.

After more than 2,500 workers moved to a 35- or 36-hour workweek and declared themselves happier, healthier and less stressed, the country is now moving to make this an option for the majority of its workforce.

This, of course, goes against today’s always-on, 24/7 global economy, where long hours can seem inevitable, inescapable and natural. Years of “rise and grind,” laser-like focus and unrelenting labor, we are told, are behind the success of tech billionaires, professional athletes, “unicorn” companies and even entire economies.

Yet the four-day workweek isn’t just for the public sector — many private companies are discovering that by switching to a four days, they can protect time for undistracted work and give people more time for leisure. The results: Increased productivity and creativity; improved recruitment and retention; less burnout for founders and leaders; and more balanced and sustainable lives for workers — all without cutting salaries or sacrificing customer service.

My book about the move towards four-day workweek, Shorter, was published in the US in early March 2020. The next day, my home state of California reported its first coronavirus death, and a week later, schools, businesses and public spaces across America began closing.

At first, I worried that it was exactly the wrong time to publish a book on the four-day week. But it soon became clear — once the initial confusion over shutdowns and remote work settled — that the global movement to shorten the workweek wasn’t slowing down. In fact, the pandemic was making it possible for more companies to shorten their working hours, highlighting the urgent need to redesign how we work, and teaching me some new things about the four-day week as well as the future of work.

 

The four-day week before the pandemic

Before the pandemic, hundreds of companies around the world, including in Korea and Japan, two countries whose languages have invented words for “death by overwork,” had moved to four-day weeks, six-hour days or other shorter workweeks. Most were small companies with fewer than 100 people, and they included creative and professional service firms but also software startups, restaurants, factories and nursing homes — industries where overwork is common and deadlines can be inflexible.

Almost all these companies were led by seasoned founders who were now facing burnout or some existential threat to their company. They had concluded that ever-longer hours were unsustainable.

Why did they do it? For many, it was a question of change-or-die. Almost all these companies were led by seasoned founders who found themselves facing burnout or some existential threat to their company. They had concluded that ever-longer hours were unsustainable and thought they could invent a better way of working. For everyone, the benefits of a three-day weekend were obvious: Better work-life balance; more time for “life admin” and family; and more energy for professional and personal development, restorative hobbies and exercise.

No company just lopped a day off their calendar. Instead, they had to meaningfully redesign how they worked. The key to unlocking a shorter workweek without reducing productivity lies in three areas: 1) tightening meetings; 2) introducing “focus time” when everyone can concentrate on their key tasks; and 3) using technology more mindfully.

For example, Flocc London digital consultancy ELSE holds their internal meetings on hard chairs to encourage people to be brief, while at Copenhagen-based IIH Nordic, they use countdown timers to keep meetings short. Studies show that while technology has made knowledge work much more productive, office workers are wasting two to four hours a day thanks to outmoded processes, multitaskingoverly-long meetings and interruptions. Deal with those, and you go a long way towards making a four-day week possible.

Having more focused time also gives companies space for dedicated social time during the day. Flocc alternates heads-down “red time” with Swedish fika (a coffee break), while Glasgow call center Pursuit Marketing offers workers free breakfast before they hit the phones.

Companies aren’t losing out on their bottom line, and they have happier, healthier and better workers.

Many companies found they could be just as productive in four days as in five, and a few even saw employee productivity go up dramatically. What’s more, revenues and profits rose because four-day weeks were cheap to implement and actually attracted new customers.

As a result, companies didn’t cut salaries when they reduced hours. This, in turn, boosted retention rates and attracted more experienced workers, and plucky startups and small-town firms could now compete with established companies in London or Silicon Valley for senior talent. Rich Leigh, whose Gloucester firm Radioactive PR moved to a four-day week in 2019, told me, “I can’t move for great resumes from great people” who were wanting to escape London but remain  in the industry. A few years ago, Korean e-commerce company Woowa Brothers used a shorter workweek to lure people from Samsung and LG; it’s currently  valued at more than US $4 billion. Companies aren’t losing out on their bottom line, and they have happier, healthier and better workers.

Synergy Vision, a London-based medical and health care communications company, introduced a four-day week in late 2018. After six months, in a company-wide survey, 51 percent of employees said they were “very happy” at work (up from 12 percent) and 88 percent said they had enough time for personal tasks (up from 54 percent). Incredibly, 79 percent said they had enough time to get all their work done — even though they were working one day less.

“[M]y life is better off, thanks to the 4-day work week,” one employee wrote. “I spend extra time doing things for myself, like walking in Hampstead Health, getting through the pile of unread books and planning my wedding.” Another observed, “Everyone spends their time differently — some people have taken up a new hobby, some people do bugger-all and use it to recharge, and a lot of people use it to ensure their weekends are free to be properly enjoyed with friends and family.”

Working hours, innovation and the pandemic

Companies that moved to four-day weeks before the pandemic were able to respond quickly to the challenges of lockdowns. At Copenhagen-based software and design agency Abtion, employees had learned how to redesign working hours, meeting schedules and adopt new technologies when they chose to adopt a 4-day week. When the pandemic hit Danish businesses, “we did not dictate solutions” to employees, chief production officer Bo Konskov told journalist Pernille Garde Abildgaard — the leadership knew that workers already had the skills to adapt. And once they were working from home, nobody had to “constantly document that one is at work,” Konskov said. “It would be a waste of time, because we know that all our employees are on and working.”

The impact on morale of switching to a four-day week was immediate. “Instantly, you see happier people,” says Paul McNulty, whose online publishing company adopted this schedule in mid-2020.

Companies that made the shift to a shorter week during the pandemic often did so because they found that efficiencies of remote work and better use of technology created more free time, which they could in turn give back to employees who were feeling stressed or overworked because of pandemic life. If a company in early 2020 wasn’t already using tools like Google Suite, Asana, Trello and Slack to let workers collaborate and communicate  online and serve customers remotely, they quickly learned how to use them when they went remote.

After a few months, this meant that workflows became better-documented and -routinized, pushing hourly productivity upward. At the same time, the challenges of managing life under lockdown were growing, as workers juggled home-schooling, the disappearance of work-life boundaries and longer working hours. The solution: Share those productivity gains with workers, in the form of a shorter workweek.

After months of adapting to work from home and the uncertainty of living in the shadow of a pandemic, the impact on morale was immediate. “Instantly, you see happier people,” says Paul McNulty, whose online publishing company 3D Issue moved to a four-day week in mid-2020. “That’s really great to see.”  Before making the change, he gave staff the option of a pay rise or shortened working hours, and they voted in favor of the latter.

Employees with children “see this a day to themselves,” and everyone feels more loyal to the company. Shortening the workweek also encouraged people to be more thoughtful about how they worked. At Uncharted, a Denver nonprofit, “Giving people the space to figure out their working style has been an important optimization,” Banks Benitez tells me.

The four-day week and the future of work

An economic and public health crisis might not seem like a good time for businesses to try a 4-day week. So far, however, every company has survived a crisis unprecedented in recent history. Soon they’ll need to become more flexible, more agile with their time and less beholden to convention, as they redesign workplaces and routines for a workers newly accustomed to flexible work, reopen offices and stores, figure out what work must happen face-to-face and what can be done remotely, and prepare for the next pandemic or economic downturn.

Many companies have already made the kinds of technology investments necessary to implement a shorter workweek, so the 4-day week is more accessible than ever.

This will demand resilience, reflection and problem-solving among employees and in organizations. The four-day week provides an incentive for companies to develop those abilities, and it can play a role in helping companies deal with the practical problems of reopening and reforming work. And because many have already made the kinds of tech investments necessary to implement a shorter workweek without cutting salaries or sacrificing service, the four-day week is more accessible than ever.

A recent survey by Be The Business, a London-based nonprofit, found that 18 percent of companies in the UK were open to moving to a four-day work week after the pandemic ends, and 5 percent already offer a four-day week to workers.

Growing interest among politicians and governments is also raising the prominence of the four-day week in the post-pandemic workplace. In recent months, Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon, New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern and Japanese politician Kuniko Inoguchi have all expressed support for a four-day week. Mayoral candidates in Seoul, South Korea, promised to launch programs to encourage companies to experiment with four-and-a-half-day weeks. In the US, I am currently working on a campaign to encourage companies to adopt a four-day week; it launched in late June 2021.

Job losses in 2020 erased decades of gains made by women in the workplace, and the 4-day workweek could help them recover.

Some local governments have implemented a four-day week, or they’re contemplating it. The Danish kommune (or province) of Odsherred began a three-year trial of a four-day week in 2019; in the US, Morgantown, West Virginia, and Colorado‘s Jefferson County adopted it in 2020; and in 2021, Valencia, Spain, announced plans to trial it.

The four-day week can also help us address structural inequalities that the pandemic threw into sharp relief. Job losses in 2020 erased decades of gains made by women in the workplace, and the four-day week could help them recover. In my interviews with companies who’ve adopted this model, I found they often prefer working mothers whom they value for their experience, organizational skills, collaborative ability, time management and ruthless ability to prioritize.

Labor markets that reward staying late and not having a life end up charging a penalty for motherhood; in contrast, companies that work shorter weeks pay a premium for it. Working mothers “are actually the kinds of people that we want to attract,” Anna Ross, CEO of Australian beauty products company Kester Black, tells me.

A report published by UK’s 4 Day Week Campaign shows that shifting to this work pattern could reduce the entire country’s carbon footprint by 21.3% per year — the equivalent of taking nearly every car off the road.

Shorter working hours also translate into lower energy consumption, less carbon emissions and less commuting time. A report published by the 4 Day Week Campaign in the UK shows that shifting to this work pattern could reduce the entire country’s carbon footprint by 21.3 percent per year — the equivalent of taking nearly every car off the road. As has been the case during the pandemic, the report also found evidence that people are more likely to spend their non-work time engaged in less carbon-intensive activities, like preparing their own meals and walking or cycling instead of driving.

A shorter workweek could also benefit regions and countries trying to become magnets for global talent or attract young people to move back home. An economy in which workers have a bigger voice in how work is automated and get a bigger share of the benefits of increased productivity is one which is less likely to suffer huge disruptions from automation and AI.

Finally, the four-day week can help us develop a healthier vision of work and time. In recent decades, globalization, outsourcing, automation, digitization and, most recently, the rise of the gig economy have created an economy in which we are encouraged, or required, to work ever-longer hours in the name of “doing what you love,” bringing your whole self to work or avoiding redundancy.

But one of the most important lessons companies that adopt four-day weeks can teach us is that — with the right incentives and culture — workplaces can replace the worship of destructive creativity with a vision of sustainable creativity, in which work and life are better balanced, rest fuels creativity, and companies tap into employees’ passions. The four-day week is within our grasp. We just need to see it, and be bold enough to seize it.

Watch Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s TEDxYouth@Monterey Talk here: 

Watch this TEDxAuckland Talk on the four-day workweek now: 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is the author of “Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less,” and “Shorter: Work Better, Smarter and Less.” His consultancy Strategy + Rest helps companies move to 4-day weeks. You can follow him at @askpang or visit his website www.strategy.rest

This piece was adapted for TED-Ed from this Ideas article.

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