The drumbeat for a four-day workweek is getting louder.
Microsoft Japan tried it and says productivity rose by 40% and electricity costs fell by 23%. Finland’s new prime minister, Sanna Marin, says her country might want to experiment with a four-day workweek. And in his new book, The 4 Day Week, Andrew Barnes (founder of the New Zealand financial services firm Perpetual Guardian) writes about how letting his employees work this way made them happier and the company more profitable.
So, is it time for more businesses, government agencies and nonprofits to let their workers do their jobs four days a week, rather than five?
The 4-Day Workweek and People 50+
The idea may sound compelling, especially to people in their 50s and 60s who’d like to have a weekday off to use for such things as taking a parent to doctor’s appointments; spending time with a grandchild; volunteering at a local nonprofit or having more time to pursue a passion.
“Hundreds of companies in the UK are moving to a four-day week or are already doing it, including large organizations.”
I spoke to Barnes, who made a compelling case. “I think the four-day workweek really suits older workers,” he said. “The time I’d likely want to give something back to society or my community is likely when I’m older and I’ve made my money and paid for my house.”
But flex work and HR experts I also talked to say the four-day workweek has its challenges — for employers, customers and clients and employees.
“I don’t think one-size-fits-all time-based solutions are the answer,” said Cali Williams Yost, a flexwork expert and founder of the Flex + Strategy Group in Madison, N.J. “It’s not just when, but it’s how and where people are working.”
Prompting a ‘Broader Conversation’
But, Yost added, she hopes talk about four-day workweeks “prompts a broader conversation” about the way we work.
Liz Supinski, director of research and product for SHRM (the Society for Human Resource Management), told me that while her HR trade group’s surveys haven’t shown a huge uptick in four-day workweeks, “we do anecdotally see more organizations interested in having the conversation to understand how it works.”
Barnes thinks we’re at an inflection point, though he concedes Europe, Australia and New Zealand are ahead of America in offering four-day workweeks. “Hundreds of companies in the UK are moving to a four-day week or are already doing it, including large organizations,” he said.
Truth is, employers offering four-day workweeks do so in very different ways. Sometimes, everyone gets off the same day each week. Sometimes, workers have to put in 10-hour days during their four weekdays on the job, though what’s known as a “compressed workweek.”
Sometimes — as in the eight-week experiment at 240-person Perpetual Guardian which has since become permanent — individual employees choose which day they’ll be off (with approval from their manager and coordination with their team). They can also change which day that will be from week to week. The staffers get paid the same as if they worked five days and receive all their benefits.
Compressed workweeks are offered by one-third of organizations and four-day workweeks of 32 hours or less are offered by 15% (up from 12% in 2018), according to SHRM. “While four-day workweeks are still relatively uncommon, organizations that have implemented them report no decreases to productivity or revenue as a result,” said SHRM’s June 2019 Leave and Flexible Working report.
How Perpetual Guardian Tested a 4-Day Workweek
Barnes explained the genesis of his firm’s four-day workweek: “I had read an article by an economist about surveys in the UK and Canada showing that employees were productive between one-and-a-half and two-and-a-half hours a day and I thought, ‘Why is that? And is it happening in my company?’”
So, Barnes wondered, what would happen if he offered his staff a day off each week. “Would they change their behaviors, so productivity wouldn’t fall?” he asked himself. “I said, ‘Why don’t we try?’”
The results after the experiment ended: Employees, in general, reported much better work-life balance, job satisfaction and health as well as less job stress. Less time spent in meetings, too. For Perpetual Guardian, revenue and profitability have risen 6% and 12.5% respectively; job performance, team creativity and staff retention increased, too. The offices never closed down; they just had fewer people working there.
Retention of employees in today’s tight labor market is the top reason employers provide flexible work alternatives including four-day workweeks, Supinski said. “Retention is the number one priority for employers,” she noted. And, she added, “generally speaking, workflex variations are one of the least expensive ways to make employees happier.”
“You can’t just have everybody not there on Fridays.”
The fast-casual restaurant chain Shake Shack recently expanded its four-day work week test to a third of its outlets, after finding it helpful for retraining and recruiting managers.
The Pushback Against 4-Day Workweeks
The main reasons employers don’t offer flexible working conditions, Supinski said, is they think it costs too much or it will be hard to supervise employees.
In truth, four-day workweek tests have had some bumps. At Perpetual Guardian, for instance, some staffers reported feeling more stress and pressure to get their work done in a shorter timeframe. And some — especially some managers — found themselves needing to work longer hours during the four days.
And it bombed for one team that hadn’t thought through how they’d serve their customers when its staffers were off.
“It was a new business we’d bought and not imbued with the same culture,” said Barnes. “So their customer service standard declined. But everybody else at the company understood we had to maintain our service standards and be sure our customer-facing staff was there every day.”
That kind of customer nonservice is one reason a four-day workweek doesn’t work well for some types of businesses, Yost said.
“You have to have serious logistics in place and be able to respond to customers and compete,” she noted. “You can’t just have everybody not there on Fridays. The client may need something on Friday. The supplier may need to get back to you that day.”
Customer-facing retail and hospitality jobs fields aren’t well suited to four-day workweeks and other flexible workhour arrangements, said Supinski. “People expect the doors to be open all the time and to be able to go to the restaurant whenever they want,” she said. “It’s not that flexible initiatives can’t be done; it gets more complex.”
How to Try to Get a 4-Day Workweek
If you’d like a four-day workweek and your employer doesn’t offer it, but you think your manager might consider letting you try it, Yost offers this advice: “You can’t just say, ‘I want to work four days a week.” Instead, she said, really think through what tasks you would give up and what that would look like in action.
In other words: make a convincing case that working this way wouldn’t be bad for your employer and might even be helpful. Her book, Work + Life, offers more specifics.
A four-day workweek “is not an issue people should be afraid of raising with their boss,” said Barnes. “The research is pretty clear — companies get productivity improvements and see fewer sick days. If you go to your boss making an economic argument, not just a work-life balance argument, any sensible businessman or woman should be receptive.”
After all, LinkedIn’s 2020 Global Talent Trends survey just noted: “As we enter the 2020s, empathy will reshape the way employers hire and retain talent.”
Next Avenue Editors Also Recommend:
- Flexible Work: Is It Lip Service From Employers?
- It’s High Time for the 4-Day Workweek
- How You Can Get a 4-Day Workweek
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