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How common is the four-day workweek in reality?

Numerous studies on the reduced workweek have shown encouraging findings. For some businesses, it’s becoming a more practical option, but for others, this new arrangement won’t be an option.

Four-day workweeks were once considered such a pipe dream that they hardly registered on the minds of most employees and employers. However, numerous businesses all around the world have tested this setup in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak and have seen encouraging outcomes.

A six-month trial involving 33 volunteer organizations in the US and Ireland in 2022 shown a beneficial impact on business performance, productivity, and employee wellbeing. Employees who worked the shorter workweek reported improved work-life balance, reduced stress, and weariness.

The trial received a nine out of ten rating from the 27 companies that completed a final survey.

In a 2022 UK trial with 70 enterprises, 86% of the businesses claimed the four-day workweek was so successful that they intended to continue using it when the pilot program was over. They listed advantages like improved productivity and significant cost savings for workers on childcare and transportation.

Similar experiments have produced equally encouraging results for businesses in Belgium, Spain, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. Employees appear especially eager to standardize shorter workweeks, which is understandable.

Nevertheless, many workers still seem to be unable to work a four-day workweek, despite the overwhelming favorable findings. It is tougher to imagine the similar change for schoolteachers or office workers in more traditional organizations, but tech workers in nimble, forward-thinking companies may expect for such a benefit in the near future.

Ultimately, the four-day workweek may not be practical for all employees – at least not right now – due to specific businesses and strongly ingrained work cultures.

locating the ideal fit

The industries that rely on technology and offices have thus far made the biggest strides toward reducing work hours.

According to Joe O’Connor, director and co-founder of the Work Time Reduction Center of Excellence in Toronto, “it is really taking off as a notable trend in areas like tech, software, ICT [internet communication technology], finance and professional services – knowledge-based roles that used to be primarily office-based, but are now in many cases are hybrid or remote.”

Such businesses generally have an innovation and agility mindset instilled in them, but they also have an advantage in terms of quick, simple fixes. A significant reduction in work hours can be achieved while maintaining output with the help of strategies like introducing meeting-free days, which are much easier to implement in agile organizations.

Read on for more.

Everywhere we go, from non-profits to manufacturing firms to even the hospitality industry, we see highly successful examples. O’Connor, Joe

Shortening the workweek in other industries is feasible, but it necessitates challenging long-held beliefs. For example, the practice of consulting and law is frequently structured around the idea of the billable hour, which states that less effort equates to lower pay.

According to O’Connor, however, these cultures can change. “We’re starting to see examples of law firms moving to four-day weeks by switching from billing by the hour to billing by project value, or by reducing their non-billable overheads so that their teams are more focused on client work,” he said.

For businesses in these less adaptable industries, the viability of this shorter workweek might also differ from what other, more nimble businesses and sectors are able to do.

For instance, according to Pedro Gomes, author of Friday is the new Saturday and coordinator of an upcoming Portuguese government trial of the four-day workweek, “if [these firms] close on Friday and give everyone the same day off, that makes coordination with clients, suppliers, and the rest of the economy harder.”

The option is to give various employees different days off so that you may continue working five days a week, but you then require communication protocols in teams to be able to handle days when coworkers are absent.

In light of this, while cooperative workplaces like advertising agencies may decide to have everyone take the same day off in order to improve team coordination, sectors that depend on trade throughout the week, like hospitality and service, may set up procedures for salaried, non-shift workers to take off different days. Many experts think the four-day workweek can be adjusted in this way to work for most industries.

O’Connor continues, “We have seen highly successful instances everywhere, from non-profits to manufacturing firms, even hotels.”

an established culture

In the modern workplace, factors like firm size and culture may be crucial indicators of whether an organization will successfully embrace a shorter workweek. Few significant worldwide companies have tested the four-day workweek to this far.

Despite successful trials by Unilever and Microsoft in New Zealand and Japan, other large firms have been sluggish to follow suit. Large organizations have the financial resources to change, but Gomes notes that their structures are significantly more rigid.

In reality, small and medium-sized businesses are more likely to test the four-day workweek because they are more adaptable and typically have a CEO or founder who has a clear understanding of how it will affect the entire company.

To put it another way, executives at smaller companies might have to deal with less red tape and find it simpler to predict how widespread change will affect their organization as a whole than executives at large, sprawling multinational corporations with complicated organizational structures.

A particular type of manager, however, may be resistant to changing deeply ingrained norms in organizations of all sizes, creating a significant barrier to the implementation of shorter weeks. Although the four-day workweek movement is expanding globally, it is still not a common workplace practice.

Implementing such a progressive change calls for a high degree of trust between managers and employees. Managers are unlikely to want to even test the change if they don’t believe that staff can make it successful. (Notably, managers have struggled greatly with productivity-related trust concerns throughout the pandemic.)

According to Benjamin Laker, professor at Henley Business School in Reading, UK, “the biggest barrier to companies implementing four-day workweeks is probably a combination of entrenched culture and resistant bosses.”

The shorter workweek “may be seen by some managers as reducing their control or making it more challenging to manage employees.” In other words, risk-averse managers might wonder why they would alter a successful system.

Employee dissatisfaction with four-day workweeks has frequently been accompanied by reports of managers stepping up productivity, monitoring, and performance pressures. Therefore, even though many employees mention improved wellbeing in some areas, the impact of these new factors may increase employee stress levels.

“If an organisation culturally doesn’t have that trust but instead has a very top down, centralised decision-making structure, they would probably struggle to make this work,” adds O’Connor.

Although the global movement in support of the four-day week is gathering pace, it is not yet a mainstream work practice, and undertaking such progressive change requires a high level of trust between leaders and workers

Other organisations for which four-day workweeks are likely off the table are hourly- and service-based – like restaurants, retail and healthcare – where a shorter workweek and subsequently fewer shifts ultimately means lower compensation.

Although workers in these industries would likely experience similar benefits from reduced workloads, creating a pathway to less labour may be impossible, if it means losing out on pay.

The new normal

Even facing resistance from some leaders, experts say it is likely the four-day week will become more mainstream.

In sectors that are already welcoming the shift, the 32-hour week is emerging as “a as a tool for competitive advantage in terms of talent, attraction and retention”, says O’Connor.

“You could see a scenario in tech where by 2026, not offering a four-day week is almost a competitive disadvantage.”

And the more companies that make the switch, the more others who have not yet made the move may feel pressure to do so. “It’s hard to implement a four-day week when the rest of the economy is organized in a five-day week,” says Gomes, “but the moment you have the job market coordinating on a four-day week, then it forces the rest of the economy.”

Even so, such widespread societal change would take “many years”, he says, and some industries will inevitably be left until last. Schools, for example, might struggle to implement a four-day week for full-time staff unless parents were already working such arrangements en masse.

There is also the possibility that companies will turn to other less drastic measures than a four-day week. “I predict that no-meeting days, flexible work hours and other innovative approaches to work-life balance will become standard practice in the near future,” says Laker.

For now, the shorter workweek may not be widespread, but there’s momentum around the globe to keep the experiment going. In 2023, trials of the four-day workweek are planned or ongoing in Australia, Spain, Scotland and more.

“There’s an element of ‘the genie’s out of the bottle’. We’re not going back to the way we were working pre-pandemic,” says O’Connor. “The four-day week is not going to be 100% of the economy, much like the five-day week is not wholly representative of the economy now, but it certainly could become the new normal.”

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