The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has caused nearly every aspect of everyday life to come to an unprecedented halt. We have never before had to shutter our entire economy for something that we cannot see with the naked eye. Businesses with in-office workforces were forced to quickly shift to fully remote operations. This sudden and dramatic change has presented us all with a set of stressful challenges including social isolation, economic uncertainty, and soaring unemployment rates.
As a result, employees are overwhelmed and burning out. Employers must step up to help their remote workers cope with the stress, or else they face the risk of an extremely fatigued workforce.
One long-discussed change to the working paradigm could help: shifting to a four-day workweek.
The Benefits of a Four-Day Workweek
The four-day workweek is not new a new idea, and its benefits are well documented. For example, The New Zealand-based financial services company Perpetual Guardian tested a four-day week in 2018 and saw amazing results. Employees reported better work/life balances (78 percent compared to 54 percent pretrial) and less stress (38 percent compared to 45 percent pretrial).
Microsoft’s Japanese division saw similarly positive results when it tried a four-day week. Sales per employee rose 40 percent, while company electricity use dropped 23 percent and paper consumption fell by 59 percent. Overall, 92 percent of employees surveyed about the change said they were satisfied with the trial.
It’s clear that a four-day week can boost employee productivity and engagement, and employees with stronger work/life balances tend to be healthier and more likely to remain at one company. Could a four-day workweek be the remedy for burnout during COVID-19?
It depends. Those trials in New Zealand and Japan weren’t run during periods of enforced social isolation and economic uncertainty, so it’s not entirely clear how such factors could complicate things. However, giving employees a three-day weekend every week could be a way to help them better handle the additional stress of the moment. The hope is that, even though individuals must social distance, the extended mental break alone will be enough to help them return to work feeling refreshed, energized, and more productive every Monday.
The Drawbacks of a Four-Day Workweek
Any change to the existing employment paradigm will necessitate some trade-offs, and these have to be considered before a company fully embraces a four-day workweek.
The biggest challenge could be getting your employees used to working longer hours. While some organizations — like perpetual Guardian — simply reduce the number of hours their employees work every week when moving to a four-day schedule, other companies may choose to maintain a 40-hour week by having employees work four 10-hour days instead of five 8-hour days.
Working these extended days, even for four days a week, can still result in burnout for some, especially with the added stresses of COVID-19. A 10-hour workday can also lead to extra challenges for parents. Many daycare and childcare services remain closed, leaving parents to work longer hours while also caring for their children. When daycare centers open back up again, most will close around 6 p.m. every day — before a 10-hour day is up. For those with school-age children, it’s important to note that not every elementary school has an after-school program that can safely accommodate children if parents work longer days.
A four-day week can also present customer-service issues. Since clients expect the businesses they work with to be available during regular business hours, you’ll need to schedule your employees so that someone is always in the office. This can lead to scheduling conflicts as you try to figure out which employees get which weekdays off. Potential and existing clients who would prefer to have a full team available during all normal working hours may decide to take their business elsewhere.
Lastly, you’ll need to think about how a four-day week will impact project and team workflows. Your employee’s availability will be dramatically changed when you move to a four-day week, which can make it hard to schedule standing meetings or set deadlines that work for everyone.
Is a Four-Day Workweek Right for Your Business?
Ultimately, determining whether a four-day week is suitable for your organization doesn’t depend on abstract lists of pros and cons. It’s really about on your specific employees and clients. Are your workers receptive to the idea in today’s volatile economy? Are your clients and customers going to be comfortable with your changing availability?
The best way to answer these questions is to conduct a survey of employees — and maybe of your clients — to gauge interest in the idea. Such a survey also gives employees a chance to share any concerns they might have about stepping away from work for an extra day. If your survey yields unfavorable results, it might be worth reconsidering the idea. If you believe that you will not be able to retain a strong client or customer roster down the line and that business continuity could be a challenge, then a four-day week is not for your organization.
You may also want to consider running a trial period, preferably during a typically slow season for your business. Even if you think a four-day week could work for your company, you can’t simply jump right in. You need to be methodical and strategic about the change, especially within a larger organization. Implementing a four-day week too quickly or broadly can create panic, conflict, and chaos.
Draft up guidelines for managers and employees outlining standard operating procedures during the shortened week. In particular, be sure to clearly delineate who will be responsible for responding to client emergencies on days off.
Furthermore, because almost everyone is working from home, you’ll need to think about how shaving a day off an employee’s schedule will impact team cohesion. We are no longer working face to face, which can make employee engagement difficult enough on its own. Managers may want to think about increasing the frequency of communication with employees, and they may want to establish designated check-in times on their own days off so their team members can ask urgent questions if needed. Managers may also need to rearrange deadlines or make them more flexible.
These are just a few examples of what to think about before implementing a similar trial in your company. If the test run is successful, you can consider whether the program should become permanent.
One thing to keep in mind is that the four-day workweek is not meant for every business — but there are alternatives. If, after gauging sentiment and trying it out, you find a four-day week won’t work for your company, you can still combat burnout in other ways. For example, you could institute a “Summer Fridays” program where employees get alternate Fridays off or get out early on Fridays. You could also increase the frequency of happy hours, games, and social events (virtually for now) to give employees something fun to look forward to throughout the week.
Carla Wasko is vice president of people and culture at WhiteHat Security.