What would you be willing to give up for a shorter work week? According to a recent survey, nearly 40% would sacrifice unlimited PTO or free company-provided healthcare for a lighter schedule, while three-quarters would trade their current job entirely for one that only worked four days a week.
Companies are hearing the cry for a different way of working, with many introducing a four-day work week to meet employee demands, remain competitive, and improve work-life balance. And even if it’s not a perfect solution for preventing burnout, employees still want the option.
What is the 4-Day work week?
Today, the 5-day, 40-hour work week is the familiar U.S. standard. It wasn’t always.
Benjamin Hunnicutt, a historian who researches work and leisure, told NPR that early hunting, gathering and farming communities likely worked well under 40 hours. Later, the Industrial Revolution caused a spike in labor; in the early 1800s, many had 70 hour work weeks. These hours gave way to protests and labor organizing, and workers ultimately securing 10-hour days. The 8-hour workday was born in the early 20th century as an effort to create more jobs during the Great Depression.
Since then, many expected the standard work week to continue shrinking—most famously, economist John Maynard Keynes, who thought technology had the potential to bring us to a 30-hour work week by 2030.
Unfortunately, three hour shifts are far from today’s standard.
However, as we enter a New Industrial Revolution (from home) a 4 day work week is possible. This shortened week is a continuation of past efforts to reduce labor and maximize life. It’s a response to questions like:
- Can employees actually be focused and productive for 8 hours every day?
- Would people get more done if their shifts were shorter?
- Is there a reason to work so much if it leaves so little time to live?
- Is the new American Dream still tied to an office chair?
The 4 day work week is a chance to investigate these questions. It’s also an experiment in improving the average worklife.
But it’s not as simple as just declaring a four-day work week.
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to a reduced working week, so companies are trying out variations: give the entire company a dedicated day off, like a Monday or Friday; reduce full time to 32 hours; work 40 hours condensed into fewer days. These moves often come after testing the water with initial steps like “no meeting” days or Summer Fridays.
No matter what type of 4 day work week hours companies implement, they can succeed in creating environments that support employees without sacrificing productivity. These key themes emerge when examining companies that have effectively launched four day weeks:
- Align your policies to your mission
- Eliminate or reduce meetings
- Monitor for overwork and provide additional support resources
- Don’t sacrifice pay or benefits
- Understand that company culture might change, and that’s ok
- Test, refine, and optimize your policies
- Above all, focus on your people
Align policies to mission with a 4 day work week
The Wanderlust Group builds tech marketplaces that connect outdoor adventurers to destinations like marinas and campgrounds, so the company wanted to give its employees those same opportunities via a four-day work week.
“Our whole company is about building technology that gets people outside and the value of leaving our screens every once in a while,” said Meghan Keaney Anderson, Chief Marketing Officer. “So there's really a good mission fit for us in doing the same for our employees, and giving them time back in their lives to be able to go for a hike, or a walk with their dog, or go to the beach with their kids.”
The mission alignment also extended to the company’s shortened work week policy, which went into effect in 2020 after a trial period. So, what does their 4 day work week look like?
Weekends are the busiest times for Wanderlust’s clients, so it wasn’t realistic to give employees Fridays off, on days when clients needed extra support. Instead, the company provides Mondays off—traditionally slower days for their clients, with support staff rotating coverage to make sure clients can reach the company if needed.
Similarly, at G2i, a marketplace for developers that vets react, react native, and OJS developers and matches them to companies, a 32-hour work week isn’t just a benefit—it’s also part of its recommendation to clients. Michelle Bakels, G2i’s program director focused on developer health and well being urges its customer companies to provide 32-hour contracts for developers, too.
“One analogy that we use a lot to help educate clients is that high performance athletes are not expected to work at their highest level five days a week,” Bakels says. “Rest and recovery is incorporated into the fitness routine if you want the highest performance out of your workers.”
Eliminate or reduce meetings with the four day work week
Perhaps the most important shift that takes place when implementing reduced schedules is allowing employees to be as productive as possible during their working hours. Justin Mitchell, founder and CEO at Yac, knew from previous experiences exactly the type of culture he wanted to avoid: one where people had to complete their work at night because that’s when meetings ended.
“It was just ridiculous to me that you would work a full day, and then you would start a separate workday after the workday finished to actually get anything done,” he said.
Reducing meetings became a critical priority for his async team, freeing workers from the concept of a nine-to-five entirely and allowing them to be heads-down focused at work during the company’s flexible 32-hour workweek. “You could say, ‘Oh yeah, we have super flexible work hours.’ But you have a meeting at one, two, four, and five. Well, that's not really flexible, because you have to be at your desk from one to five now,” Mitchell said.
Anderson at Wanderlust Group said the company cut about a third of their standing meetings to make room in peoples’ days for focused work. They informally adopted a practice that if a meeting didn’t have an agenda, attendance was not required. Reducing meetings also gave employees the time they needed to meet the same growth and productivity goals as when the company worked five days a week, and helped workers avoid feeling overwhelmed.
“We kept the same goals, we kept the same workload, frankly,” Anderson said. “What we moved was the amount of meetings that we had. You feel overwhelmed not because you couldn't have gotten that work done, but because you probably had a slew of meetings taking up other big chunks of your week that made that time feel crunched.”
Monitor for overwork and provide additional support resources
An unfounded concern about shifting to a four-day work week model is that with less time, people will do less work. But productivity typically increases in a shorter week, with Microsoft famously reporting a 40% increase in productivity after introducing a shorter week in Japan in 2019. This is why rather than worrying about underworking, companies should be closely attuned to the potential for overwork, which is much more common.
For Mitchell at Yac, one unexpected challenge with the shift to a flexible 32-hour schedule was, while he had built accountability into their HR systems for making sure people weren’t taking too much time off, the company hadn’t prepared for people who were massively overworking.
“We’d never gone through the thought of, we should make sure people aren't working too hard,” he said. The company adjusted its communication strategies to help secure additional resources if employees are routinely working more than 32 hours a week.
At G2i, while 32 hours is considered full time work, staff are capped at 40 hours per week. While there’s no punishment for overworking, it will trigger a discussion with a mentor to adjust goals or see what additional support might be needed to keep workers closer to 32 hours. “If you're consistently hitting that 40 hour cap, let's look at what's going on there. Maybe we didn't set goals correctly,” Bakels said.
Buffer has publicly charted the results of its transition to a four-day work week starting in 2020, and data from the company shows that after almost two years, 84% of employees feel able to complete their work in four days, avoiding the need for any extra hours. And, 73% of employees say they are working a true four-day work week (though employees also have the option to work five shorter days, if that is more convenient for individuals).
Part of the reason they have been able to avoid overwork? Fridays are no-meeting days and no communication is expected over Slack or email. Buffer has found that some employees do use Fridays as an “overflow” day to catch up on lingering tasks, which the company supports as long as it doesn’t turn into consistent overwork.
The Wanderlust Group actually relies on tools like Slack to help them monitor for overwork: “Slack will give you a report on the chatter activity levels on your team. We pull that report occasionally to see if our people are sliding into Monday. Are they talking about work on their day that they should be out enjoying their lives?” Anderson said. “We've managed to really, truly preserve Mondays.”
Don’t sacrifice pay or benefits in a four day work week
While some companies see a four-day work week as a way to compete for talent without increasing pay, many companies have found their bottom line hasn’t suffered from paying people the same rate for fewer hours of work.
A G2i, the staff kept their same salary and benefits, and it’s actually turned into a big recruiting perk, especially as they hire for leadership roles. “We've been able to reach a higher tier quality candidate that has worked at bigger companies, because they help place a strong value on the work life balance at this point in their careers,” Bakels said.
“I personally feel if I pulled back on pay or benefits or opportunities, it's no longer a benefit to you. I've just found a hack for not paying you full-time and still getting the same amount of work out of you,” Mitchell said. “I'm paying you for output, not input. The value that you bring to the company, your salary, that should really be based on what you're getting done, not how you're doing it or how often you're doing it.”
Understand that company culture might change, and that’s ok
Nearly every company has had to adapt its organizational culture over the last two years to adapt to the pandemic. Reducing working hours might continue to impact how you build “office culture”—but it doesn’t have to be a negative.
Anderson’s previous company had a lot of extracurricular clubs and events, but “in a four-day work week, there's just no time for those kinds of activities,” she said. “You lose a lot of space for the water-cooler talk, which I think is worth thinking through. But we don't feel like it's the company's job to host yoga classes for you, we want to just give you the time to go take a yoga class in your neighborhood.” She pointed to Slack again as a great tool for helping create that water-cooler talk, where teammates can easily catch up on how they’ve spent their time out of the office.
Buffer also identified maintaining culture as a key challenge on their four day work week journey: “We’ve been wrestling with how connected we feel as a team when you have fewer hours in the workweek to allow for casual conversations and team-building activities,” Director of People Nicole Miller wrote.
When first testing out a shortened week, the company purposefully limited the number of casual events to increase time for productive work, and have made it a goal for 2022 to prioritize “more intentional team-building both asynchronously, synchronously, and the occasional in-person meetup where available.”
Test, refine, and optimize your 4 day work week policies
Buffer, The Wanderlust Group, and G2i are great 4 day work week examples. They are all companies that were inspired to update their policies as a result of pandemic burnout and overall worker malaise. But for these organizations, it wasn’t as simple as just rolling out a new policy and reaping the benefits—it was important to include trial periods and incorporate key learnings along the way.
The four day work week might be where your company ends up, but it’s not always the best place to start—many companies start with policies involving no meeting days or early dismissal during Fridays in the summer. G2i started with alternating Fridays off for half its team, piloting that program for about a year before landing on a 32-hour flexible work week.
Buffer has just surpassed two years of having a four day work week after starting with a one month trial in 2020 in response to pandemic pressures. After seeing worker happiness spike and productivity remain level, the company expanded to a 6 month trial period to test its sustainability, constantly surveying team members and making adjustments: for example, adjust schedules so Customer Advocates can take time off without leaving coverage gaps and clarifying performance standards expected of employees.
The Wanderlust Group also had to retrofit its policy to be permanent after starting with a pilot period in the early days of the pandemic. The CEO was willing to tolerate a hit to productivity, but the drop never came. Instead, the company grew 100% year over year and kept its support call volume static. But to make the policy sustainable full time, the company continues to survey team happiness monthly and keeps a close eye on support call wait time, sales, and customer loyalty.
“Don't just drop a day and assume everything else can run as it ran before,” Anderson advised. “You need to do the hard work of auditing and cutting meetings that are unnecessary. You need to figure out how to meet less and work more. And without that intentionality, and that plan, there's a risk that it'll fail. We constantly have to revisit that.”
Above all, focus on your people
Even if shifting to a four day work week isn’t right for your business, your goals, or the culture you’re building, it’s still important to invest in your people and prioritize balance in a way that allows your employees freedom to enjoy their lives outside of the workday. There are plenty of other options for how to improve employee experience and prevent burnout—for example, Google’s 20% time policy that allows workers dedicated time to focus on side projects.
If you do reduce the hours in your work week, shut down your company for an extra day each week, or shift to fully flexible schedules, it needs to be done with intention and the willingness to adapt.
Some additional reading on the 4DWW: