In late 2018, some news from New Zealand perked up the ears of workers and employers worldwide: An experiment with a four-day workweek at estate-planning firm Perpetual Guardian proved to be a resounding success. Employees were more productive, more satisfied, and more committed all while enjoying a better work/life balance and less stress.

The experiment got a lot of people thinking. As organizations have gotten unusually creative with work arrangements in order to attract and retain talent, has a simple, powerful perk been hiding in plain sight all along?

Why Work Five Days When You Can Do It All in Four?

On the surface, a four-day workweek seems like a no-brainer for both employees and employers. Employees work full days Monday through Thursday and enjoy a three-day weekend every weekend. That means one less day of commuting every week — and one more day for family, leisure, and personal matters. Employees enjoy better work/life balance and return to work more refreshed on Mondays, while employers save on the costs of keeping the shop open. With lower stress and more time off to handle personal affairs, employees may even require fewer sick days, saving employers even more money.

Many refer to the four-day workweek as a “compressed workweek,” which captures another benefit for employers: When an employee’s time at work is compressed, it becomes scarcer and therefore more valuable. As a result, employees are less inclined to waste time. They’d rather make the most of their time while they’re on duty and their colleagues are close at hand. No one wants to fall behind and have to spend part of their three-day weekend working. Thus, the four-day workweek has a built-in gentle, but powerful, inducement for employees to work smarter, not harder.

The Wave of the Future Is Also the Wave of the Past

The four-day workweek is not a new concept. Companies have been experimenting with it since at least the 1970s, with mixed success. However, the notion that a compressed workweek could benefit both employers and employees — and should be driven by employee interests — has emerged only recently.

Research offers a clue as to why the four-day workweek is such an enduring idea. In one meta-analysis of various studies on the subject, researchers found that, overall, compressed workweeks and other alternative work arrangements have positive effects on organizational performance and job satisfaction, with minimal downsides. In other words, the rewards of a four-day workweek are potentially high and come at little risk.

Despite such promise, the last few decades have been filled with tales of unsuccessful initiatives. A recent example can be found in Treehouse, a programming-education provider, the CEO of which reported that a four-day workweek schedule sank the company’s work ethic.

Unsuccessful four-day workweek initiatives often share some common features that could help explain their failures. They are often intended to be provisional cost-cutting measures; implemented from the top down; and put in place with little consideration for employees’ work preferences, child care schedules, or workflows. Additionally, managers usually lack a clear understanding of the performance outcomes that ought to be expected from workers on a four-day schedule.

Another big drawback to the four-day workweek is that it doesn’t benefit everyone equally. While many workers are likely to be less stressed and more productive, others are just as likely to experience the opposite. In some cases, an organization may offer too much scheduling flexibility, which can severely interrupt employee workflows, especially if they are dependent on collaboration between employees.

The most successful four-day workweek programs — like that of Pennsylvania-based machining manufacturer Quality Mould — are usually the result of collaboration between employers and employees. In these programs, the important details of the arrangement are negotiated, not dictated. These arrangements are driven by both employee and organizational needs, and employees take ownership in identifying ways they can maintain or raise productivity in the new arrangement. Organizations also see better results when they shift from time-oriented understandings of job roles to task-oriented understandings.

Tips on Pitching the Idea of a Four-Day Workweek to Company Leaders

If you are thinking about proposing a four-day workweek arrangement to your manager or department, here are a few tips:

  1. Determine whether the organization is open to alternative work arrangements and whether a four-day workweek is consistent with company culture.
  2. Check whether the company has had prior success with alternative work arrangements, and see if there is already a mechanism within the company to request a four-day workweek.
  3. Make sure you are in a profession that is well suited to a four-day workweek.
  4. Consider negotiating a four-day workweek in lieu of asking for a raise.
  5. Be prepared to discuss how you intend to increase your productivity and to negotiate what tasks you will be expected to perform within a modified four-day schedule.
  6. Understand that a four-day workweek arrangement may not be permanent.

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