Is the 4-Day Workweek Really Feasible?

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Moving to a four-day workweek sounds like a nice idea, but does it make business sense?

There’s little doubt that employees would enjoy better work/life balance, which could help reduce stress levels. Meanwhile, businesses could benefit from the increased productivity four-day workweeks may drive. But are these benefits enough to make up for losing a full day’s work every week?

Then again, organizations may have little choice in whether they switch to four-day workweeks. Automation and artificial intelligence (AI) will undoubtedly cause job losses, which raises the question of whether there will even be enough work available to sustain a five-day workweek in the future. Furthermore, employees themselves are increasingly demanding flexible work arrangements. It may be that businesses will have to accept more flexible approaches to work if they want to attract top talent and continue to thrive.

Four-Day Workweeks May Become the Norm, Thanks to Automation

While automation will lead to the loss of millions of jobs, the future doesn’t necessarily have to be one of mass unemployment and social unrest. Instead, organizations could take this opportunity to reimagine the work employees do and how that work gets done. As British Labour Party politician Yvette Cooper writes,

“Automating routine calculations and data assembly tasks could free up workers to use their strategic and emotional intelligence instead. In one pilot scheme in Bremen, Germany, the postal service has teamed up with local government, health care, and welfare associations to allow mail carriers to call in on elderly citizens as part of their daily rounds, opening up new roles while reducing the burden on care providers.”

With careful planning, automation could actually be a blessing rather than a curse. People could shift their attention from mundane tasks to more creative and fulfilling ones. This idea is nothing new: In 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that technology would lead to a 15-hour workweek within two generations. He was wrong about the details, but his general idea may not have been off the mark.

Indeed, there is growing interest in shortening the number of hours we work — and not only from employees looking for better work/life balance. Research has shown that working more hours doesn’t necessarily make a person more productive. For example, one study found German and Danish workers to be more productive than workers in the UK, even though workers in the UK put in more hours overall.

Other studies have looked specifically at the effects of the four-day workweek on productivity. The results are often positive. For example, after switching to a four-day week, one New Zealand financial services firm saw higher productivity, better work/life balance, and lower employee stress levels. Similarly, a Scottish marketing firm experienced a 30 percent increase in productivity after adopting a four-day workweek.

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The Disadvantages of a Four-Day Workweek

While shortened weeks have boosted productivity and employee satisfaction in the past, that hasn’t always been the case. As The Guardian reports, “Smaller companies experimenting with the four-day week have found performance has been better in the first few weeks as excitement about the project took hold, before falling slightly.”

Four-day weeks also pose a number of practical and logistical challenges. For example, how might a 24/7 operation implement a four-day week? Could a hospital, for example, shorten the week without having to hire more employees? Similarly, some businesses may struggle to shorten weeks without inconveniencing customers. If employees with certain expertise aren’t in the office on certain days, customers may not be able to get the help they need when they need it.

Four-day workweeks may also be viewed as unfair to part-time employees. Will they continue to work as they always have while full-timers reap the benefits of shorter weeks? Will companies have to raise their part-timers’ wages in order to maintain some kind of pay equity?

While a four-day week is supposed to reduce stress, it could have the opposite effect if the company does not set proper expectations. If employees feel like they have to accomplish in four days what they used to do in five, burnout is likely to increase rather than decrease, and productivity will plummet in the long run.

In addition, there is the question of how a four-day week might affect company culture. During a traditional five-day week, workers often have plenty of opportunities to socialize and bond, thereby strengthening the organizational culture. Would those opportunities be sacrificed in order to meet work demands in a four-day week?

Finally, it must be said that a four-day week is not a magic bullet for all productivity woes. For example, if your company is dealing with a toxic office environment, a four-day workweek isn’t going to make your employees any more productive. Before moving to a four-day week, organizations should be sure that a shortened scheduled would address the company’s actually existing problems.

Automation and AI have the potential to change the working landscape for the better, freeing up people to take on more creative and interesting roles. A four-day workweek does seem like a sensible way forward in this new economic environment.

However, success stories so far suggest shortened schedules work best for businesses with strong cultures and operating models that can support four-day weeks. Simply cutting hours doesn’t guarantee a productivity boost. There are many other factors at play.

Dakota Murphey has more than a decade of experience in numerous HR and marketing roles.

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Dakota Murphey has more than a decade of experience in numerous HR and marketing roles. Since becoming a full-time mum, she enjoys sharing her experience and knowledge through her writing and connecting with like-minded professionals.