The Four-Day Week Trends Up as Workers Seek Flexibility and Balance

The Four-Day Week Trends Up as Workers Seek Flexibility and Balance

The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way we lived and worked with flexible working arrangements identified as one of the unexpected silver linings for many employees. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that the idea of a four-day workweek, with no loss of pay, has gained traction around the world.

The four-day week is an idea challenging the rigidity of the traditional model of work that could better meet the needs of employees, who, according to a report by McKinsey and Company, want greater emphasis on work-life balance, flexibility and mental health, as they ease back into the workplace.

The Hays Salary Guide, recently ran a survey of 3,500 organisations and more than 3,800 employees, finding that nearly 80 per cent of workers wanted flexible work, in terms of working hours, the location of work and working practices. Positioning the possibility of workplace flexibility as a key competitive advantage for businesses.

Swinburne University research revealed similar findings, with flexible working described as a possible ‘deal-breaker’ for Australian office workers. Their survey of more than 1,000 knowledge workers found that more than 43 per cent of knowledge workers would leave their employer if not offered the option of flexible working arrangements.

While the four-day week may not be the ideal ‘flexibility’ solution for all businesses, it is applicable for some sectors, especially office-based environments, where technology can support agile and innovative processes.

In 2019, Henley Business School ran a research project involving more than 500 business leaders and 2,000 employees, including businesses that have already implemented a four-day working week (33 per cent of businesses surveyed), looking into the benefits, challenges and alternatives to a four-day working week.

The main benefits identified in this research were:

  • Improved ability to attract and retain talent
  • Increased overall employee satisfaction
  • Lower employee sickness levels
  • Increased productivity

A review of business literature includes advantages such as increased mental wellbeing and physical health for employees, lowering of the global carbon footprint, reduced costs within an office and for employees, and greater gender equality.

Companies across the world, both large and small have been experimenting with different forms of the four-day week and national governments are coming on board and investigating the idea of a shortened working week.

Importantly, there are two models for the four-day week. There is a ‘compressed’ model, where employees complete full-time hours over a four-day week instead of over five days. The other model is a four-day week where the work reduces from a standard 40 hours to between 32 to 35 hours per week for the same pay and benefits. This article is primarily focused on the second model.

The reduced hours model is based on the theory that longer hours do not mean more output, and that the always “on mentality” is not the best way to support productivity.

According to the campaign Four Day Week Ireland: “There is no correlation between working longer hours and greater productivity.

The evidence of both international academic research and business case studies in recent years would suggest the opposite.

The four-day week has led to more focused, energised and happier workers from Galway to New Zealand, with many companies who have trialled or introduced the four-day week reporting an increase in productivity and profitability.”

The campaign, Four Day Week Ireland, has launched a six-month pilot program to assist employers testing the effectiveness of a four-day working week, with no loss of pay for employees, beginning January 2022.

Iceland has reaped the benefits of a shorter working week after trials revealed that slashing weekly hours led to better employee wellbeing, with less stress and burnout, while productivity stayed the same or improved.

While not strictly enforcing a four-day week model, the trials reduced hours from 40 each week to 35 or 36. Now 86 per cent of Icelandic workers either work shorter weeks or have the right to ask to do so.

Pre-COVID in 2019, Australian digital marketing company Versa introduced a no-work Wednesday policy based on positive results after an initial one month trial.

According to CEO Kath Blackham, revenue increased by almost 50 per cent and profits almost tripled over the period while the quantity and quality of job applicants improved markedly.

“We work 37.5-hour weeks which is unusual in an industry that typically works 45-50 hours at a minimum. We spread those hours over four days,” said Blackman.

Similarly, in New Zealand, Andrew Barnes, founder of financial services company Perpetual Guardian, switched 240 staff from a five-day to a four-day week in 2018 and maintained their pay.

The trial found productivity increased by 20 per cent with stress levels dropping from 45 per cent to 38 per cent when compared with a 2017 survey, and work-life balance scores increased from 54 per cent to 78 per cent.

Implementing a four-day week

The four-day week is not just about lopping off a day from the working week. It’s a huge shift in how a workplace operates. Employee consultation, redesigning of workplaces and routines, and a trial should be undertaken as part of the implementation process, with clear considerations given to what needs to be achieved at the company, leadership and individual employee levels.

Case studies provide valuable planning and implementation guidance, with handy recommendations that include keeping the culture focussed on how to maintain new behaviours adopted to maintain the same level of productivity, to ensure everyone is aligned to making the handover between days off successful, tracking how the change impacts teams and individuals and providing training in new time and productivity management skills prior to starting a pilot study.

External consultants can be valuable, for example, New Zealand company Perpetual Guardian, engaged independent academic research to evaluate qualitative and quantitative measures of success.

Author, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, presents a case for how reducing working hours can revolutionise companies by boosting productivity, creativity and resilience in his book Shorter.

He claims the key to unlocking a shorter workweek without reducing productivity lies in three areas:

  • Tightening meetings
  • Introducing “focus time” when everyone can concentrate on their key tasks
  • Using technology more mindfully – office workers can be wasting two to four hours a day due to outmoded processes and interruptions

The pandemic created a ‘forced experiment’ where suddenly working from home became commonplace, accepted and expected by employees and employers. Considering that Australian workers want to maintain flexible working practices out of the pandemic, the evidence suggests the four-day week is an option worth investigating.

References and further resources:

4-Day Week Global campaign

The Adecco Group: The advantages and disadvantages of the four-day workweek

The Atlantic: Kill the 5-day workweek