As The Great Resignation continues, many companies are exploring new ways to retain existing employees and lure new ones. And one that has captured a lot of interest of late is the four-day work week.
In theory, it’s a great concept: Spend nearly as many days enjoying life as you do at work. But does the reality match up?
The answer’s still being determined, but there are some hopeful signs. In the U.K., planning for a six-month pilot of a four-day work week is underway, giving the 30 participating companies access to expertise, tools and resources to make the transition a smooth one. The pilot follows a multi-year trial in Iceland (2015 to 2019) that found workers were happier, healthier, and more productive with a four-day week versus a five-day one.
Meanwhile, some companies are conducting their own experiments around the world.
Microsoft, in 2019, trialed a program in Japan giving workers the same salary, but only requiring them to work four days. Productivity went up by nearly 40%, the company said. Electricity costs, meanwhile, fell by 23%. And Unilever just wrapped up a year-long trial of a four-day week for 81 staffers.
Belgium’s government, meanwhile, reached a deal last month that lets workers in that country enjoy a four-day work week, but also gives them the right to ignore work-related messages after hours without facing repercussions.
“This is about removing the barriers that limit value creation and slow us down, and focusing our energies on creating impact and delivering results,” said Nick Bangs, Managing Director of Unilever New Zealand, at the start of the study. “Our goal is to measure performance on output, not time. We believe the old ways of working are outdated and no longer fit for purpose. … We hope the trial will result in Unilever being the first global company to embrace ways of working that provide tangible benefits for staff and for business.”
The company has not announced final results of the trial yet.
Closer to home, Blackbird Interactive, a developer in the perennially overworked video game industry, has adopted a permanent four-day work week for its team to combat stress and burnout. It wasn’t an easy transition and forced the company to reapproach how they did many tasks, but ultimately, the team says, it has improved the staff’s mental health and the efficiency of game development.
Before the three-month test, just 82% of the company’s employees believed a four-day work week was better than a five-day. When the test was over, 100% said they wanted to switch permanently.
Not everyone is quote as enthusiastic about a four-day week, though. Critics say the alternative work style results in a higher-intensity workplace, where some workers feel more stressed. The compressed time spent working also cuts down on opportunities for banter and chit-chat, which can have a negative effect. Small talk lets people transition into deeper topics, such as what they’re working on – and that, in turn, can result in collaborations and innovation.
“One of the things small talk does is it builds trust and rapport,” says Jessica Methot, an associate professor of human resource management in Rutgers’ School of Management and Labor Relations. “You can’t build a strong, collaborative, trusting, standing relationship with someone without having had small talk with them. … This is where we’re able to get a sense of someone. We’re reading them and getting attuned to their energy and emotions.”
In addition, clients and partners who work a five-day week are still going to reach out on days when the company is closed.
While the concept of a four-day work week has become a hot-topic of late, it’s hardly new. The idea was first floated in the early 20th century. When Henry Ford (and eventually, the U.S. Government) switched from a six-day work week to a five-day week one, there were many calls for a four-day week. Those eventually were silenced by critics. After the pandemic, though, which reset a lot of thinking about work norms, it is front and center once again.
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