Ask managers and employees how much time they spend actually working at work, and their responses may be the same: not as much as they should be. There’s even a name for it: Parkinson’s Law, which states that work fills the time allotted to it. One of the biggest culprits in lost productivity is cyberloafing, which can account for hours during the workday.
Employers have tried everything, from blocking distracting websites to monitoring computer usage of employees, especially those working remotely. These tactics may be effective in the short term, but they also lead to resentment from employees and higher turnover.
Some economists, human resources leaders, and psychologists say that the 40-hour workweek might be a leading cause of so much wasted time. This dovetails with the growing dissatisfaction of workers who want less stress and more work-life balance. Can a four-day workweek be the solution? Some experts say yes.
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History of the Workweek
Henry Ford is largely credited with the 40-hour workweek, consisting of eight-hour shifts and five-day workweeks. He saw this structure as a way to increase worker productivity, although he also acknowledged that it allowed workers to have leisure time. The pioneering automaker instituted three shifts so his factories could run 24 hours. The 40-hour workweek became standardized during the Great Depression.
The Modern Workweek
That was almost 100 years ago. Now, about 63 million Americans work in highly automated offices, using tools that were undreamt of during the 1920s and 1930s. Social norms have changed as well. Many families have two incomes. With both breadwinners working 40-hour weeks, child care and household management are part of the so-called “second shift.” In most cases, women take over those responsibilities.
The Great Resignation
The second shift was highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic, when parents had to take on the tasks of child care and children’s education while working from home. Many women found it unsustainable and left the workforce. This became part of the narrative of the Great Resignation, which gained momentum as the pandemic caused a shift in priorities for millions of Americans. However, it’s important to note that many women didn’t leave voluntarily; they had no choice due to competing pressures of work and parenthood.
The Evolution of the Workweek
Since the onset of the pandemic and the effects of the Great Resignation, questions about what work looks like and how to increase worker productivity and engagement have increased. The solutions aren’t straightforward. For example, working from home made some employees more productive, but for others, productivity decreased. Companies have tried to bring workers back into the office — with mixed results.
Other companies have experimented with shorter workweeks or shorter hours, also with mixed outcomes. There’s nothing set in stone about a 40-hour workweek; in fact, President Franklin D. Roosevelt reportedly considered standardizing a 30-hour workweek. Would a shorter workweek boost productivity and increase company profits? Would employees be happier and have more job satisfaction? Some studies say yes — but it’s complicated.
What Is a Shorter Workweek?
A shorter workweek is defined as full-time work that generally ranges from 32 to 37 hours per week. The shorter workweek takes a few different forms, depending on the company and its reasons for implementing the change. Employers may opt to shorten the workweek but pay employees for 40 hours. Others may pay employees a reduced wage but continue to offer full-time benefits. Examples of shorter workweek schedules include:
- Four eight-hour days. This schedule results in a 32-hour week and is the most common form.
- 9-80. Employees have every other Friday off over a two-week period, working 80 hours in nine days rather than 10.
- 9-72. Employees work eight-hour days with every other Friday off.
- Half-day Fridays. Employees work full time Monday-Thursday with Friday afternoons off.
- Three-day workweeks. This can range from 24 hours to 36 hours or more.
Four-day workweek statistics are not yet abundantly available, although the data is beginning to show some positive results. Some of the reasons for a shorter workweek include:
For some companies, cutting hours and pay was a strategy to decrease costs while continuing operations. Even before the pandemic, manufacturers and newspapers, among other companies, used shorter shifts as a way to stave off widespread layoffs. Even if companies pay workers their full wage, they can see cost benefits such as lower energy bills and reduced equipment and supplies usage.
Based on statistics about cyberloafing, some companies instituted shorter workweeks as a way to push employees to be more productive. Employees averaged nearly three hours per eight-hour workday on non-work activities, according to statistics compiled by careers research firm Zippia, and 89% of workers agreed they wasted time at work.
Some of the biggest productivity killers include social media and internet browsing, coffee and bathroom breaks, company meetings, email correspondence, distractions, and interruptions. Companies that have made the move discovered that when employees had less time to do their work, they tended to buckle down and get it done.
Improved Job Satisfaction
Many companies see the shorter workweek as a way to boost job satisfaction, which can also improve employee retention. Giving employees back eight hours, whether as a whole day or over the course of a week, relieved their stress and increased job satisfaction. However, those employers that chose a compressed workweek, in which employees worked 40 hours in four days rather than five, experienced a decrease in job satisfaction.
What Is a Four-Day Workweek?
A shorter workweek and a four-day work week are overlapping concepts. A shorter workweek usually, but not always, refers to fewer work hours — e.g., 32-37 hours as opposed to 40. A four-day workweek often also refers to working fewer than 40 hours, but it also can refer to a compressed workweek, in which employees work four 10-hour days and get three days off.
What Types of Companies Offer a Four-Day Workweek?
In a list of about 150 companies offering four-day workweeks compiled by the organization 4 Day Week, some pay 100% of what would be an employee’s 40-hour salary for 32 hours, while others pay 80%. Many of these companies are in the tech industry; others are in human resources, entertainment, accounting, and consulting. All these companies typically employ office-based professionals.
What Do Employees Think of Four-Day Workweeks?
Employees overwhelmingly support four-day workweeks. A study by cloud software firm Qualtrics found 92% of workers approved of a four-day schedule. However, employees had concerns as well, with 46% worried that it could negatively impact sales and 55% concerned it could frustrate customers.
Why Do Companies Move to Four-Day Workweeks?
The most common reason for companies to move to a four-day workweek is to boost productivity. Another reason is employee retention. A growing number of companies are using four-day workweeks as part of a recruiting strategy. Such recruiting tools reflect the shift toward meeting employees’ desires for perks that promote quality of life, such as paid family leave, paid time off, and mental health benefits.
What Are Four-Day Workweek Best Practices?
Simply shortening the workweek by lengthening the workday is not enough. Long days have an impact on worker productivity, even if employees do get Fridays off. Employers that have successfully transitioned to a four-day schedule made changes in the following areas:
- Number of meetings. Meetings are one of the biggest barriers to productivity. A compressed or shorter workweek can only work with fewer meetings.
- Efficient communications. Curtailing emails and nonessential communications also helps make workers more productive in less time.
- Employee commitment. A four-day workweek may not be right for every employee. Longer days could impact child care, commutes, and other concerns. Employers should make sure employees have the tools they need to remain productive.
- Time tracking and scheduling. A company may have to make changes to its employee timesheets and scheduling software suites.
- Overtime laws. Companies should research state overtime laws to make sure they aren’t in violation if, for instance, they choose a compressed workweek with 10-hour days.
How Does Work Impact Employee Mental Health?
COVID-19 took a toll on the nation’s mental health. The stresses related to the pandemic, health, and employment insecurity caused a rise in anxiety and depression between 2020 and 2022, according to data reported by the Department of Labor. In 2021, employees reported work-related stress as follows, according to the American Psychological Association: The pandemic has been harder on some industry sectors than others.
- Clinical staff report increased rates of burnout and anxiety, with 52% reporting stress and anxiety in the American Medical Association’s 2022 National Burnout Benchmarking report. Around 900,000 hospitality employees quit their jobs in November 2021, citing low pay, schedule inflexibility, and lack of a career path and benefits. Low pay causes a great deal of stress for many employees, and last-minute scheduling impairs workers’ ability to manage child care and leisure time.
- Even before the pandemic, K-12 teachers experienced stress and burnout. The profession has always been known for staffing shortages that impact quality and effectiveness. With the onset of the pandemic, 92% of teachers experienced more stress than ever.
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Pros and Cons of a Shorter Workweek
The move toward a shorter workweek is gaining momentum. In 2022, companies in the U.K., the U.S., and Canada instituted a four-day workweek pilot program to test the concept. The organization 4 Day Week Global sponsored the program.
As with any innovation, shorter workweeks have advantages and disadvantages. Any gains may be short-lived once the novelty wears off. Companies may wonder what happens if they have to return to a traditional five-day, 40-hour schedule. And what if the trial doesn’t go as planned? The following are some of the pros and cons that companies should be aware of.
The Benefits of a Shorter Workweek
Advocates of shorter workweeks proclaim many of the benefits. These include:
- Better work-life balance. Employees appreciate the opportunity to have more time to themselves, allowing them to decompress from work. This can result in a boost in job satisfaction, as employees feel accomplished without feeling overwhelmed.
- More energy and better employee mental health. If employees work fewer hours, rather than a compressed workweek, they tend to have more energy and feel revitalized for the workday. They may also see an improvement in mental health.
- Recruiting and retention. Employees look for companies that offer a four-day workweek, giving employers an edge in recruiting and retention.
- Equal or better productivity. A well-managed shorter workweek eliminates unnecessary meetings and other distractions. Workers know they have less time in the day to complete their tasks, so they spend more of the workday being productive.
- Lower costs. Even though companies continue to pay employees wages and benefits, the advantages of a shorter workweek can be found in reduced costs such as electricity, plumbing, air conditioning, and equipment consumables.
Disadvantages of a Shorter Workweek
Productivity experts caution that a shorter workweek won’t remedy all of a company’s human resources issues. Some of the downsides of a shorter workweek may be:
- More fatigue and stress, not less. A shorter workweek can cause workers to struggle to get work done in fewer hours if companies don’t limit distractions such as emails and long meetings. Compressed work schedules can also sap workers’ productivity, since they cram 40 hours into four 10-hour days.
- Less coverage on shifts. Some jobs don’t lend themselves to a shorter workweek. Companies may see less shift coverage, resulting in reduced customer service.
- Less employee engagement. Research shows that some companies see higher job satisfaction but lower employee engagement, meaning workers don’t have as much interest in the company’s success.
- Not a cure-all. Adopting a shorter workweek can’t repair a poor culture or resolve other issues. It may not work for all employees. Instead, research shows that employees want flexibility, rather than a one-size-fits-all solution.
Employer Data on Shorter Workweeks
Although the trend has been fairly recent, the data has started coming in. Some companies have made their pilot programs permanent, but other companies have come to a different conclusion — that a four-day workweek isn’t right for their business. In some cases, the benefits of a shorter workweek were short-lived, or came at a cost, such as a loss of employee engagement. The following four-day workweek statistics from Gallup and other research studies show a variety of outcomes.
Companies with a Four-Day Workweek
Several companies have made the shift to short workweeks. Many of them made the change permanent after pilot programs. The most successful of these companies prepared for the change by taking a look at current work practices and identifying pain points — too many meetings, high employee turnover, or other productivity killers. The following are companies with a four-day workweek, their reasons for the move, and their results.
Atlassian develops teamwork applications for Agile-based software development. The company has more than 7,000 employees. Atlassian’s experiment was small in comparison with the size of the company. The initial trial included six employees (individual contributors) and one manager. These employees worked across all parts of the business.
Atlassian started with a few questions: Would a four-day workweek improve productivity because of less time to complete work? Would it improve employee mental health and well-being? Finally, would the experiment uncover ways of working more efficiently for a traditional workweek, and what were the tradeoffs? The company compiled statistics on its four-day workweek experiment.
Over the nine-week trial, it took employees a bit to get used to a 32-hour week. Metrics such as projects completed and customer growth were equal to a five-day workweek. Focus, energy, and optimism about the ability to get work done were highest on Mondays, at the start of the week. Trial participants also enjoyed having Fridays off to recharge and manage personal life. Atlassian does not plan to roll out four-day workweeks companywide. However, it’s looking into adding an extra day off each month for employee wellness and designating meeting-free days so people can focus on work.
Galt Pharmaceuticals develops pain medications and other pharmaceuticals. It distributes its products through a system of franchise owners who market to independent pharmacists. The company moved to a 36-hour week after executive leadership studied research that showed productivity gains from a shorter workweek and the benefits to employee’s mental health, creativity, and stress levels. The company uses the shorter workweek in its recruiting efforts.
Bolt builds one-click checkout apps for e-commerce companies. The company encourages remote work for its employees. Bolt went to a four-day workweek in 2021 as a way to boost productivity by giving employees more time to relax and rest following intense work activity. The company uses the four-day workweek as part of its recruiting campaign, along with flexible work hours and unlimited paid time off. Bolt made its four-day workweek permanent after a three-month trial. The company saw an overwhelming positive response from employees, with 84% saying they had greater work-life balance.
The giant home improvement chain announced that it would offer a four-day workweek for full-time staff in mid-2022. Workers had experienced fatigue and low morale due to Lowe’s customer-centric scheduling system, which required them to work for eight weeks before getting a weekend off. The computerized system made it impossible to have a work-life balance.
This sort of scheduling is common in industries such as retail, food service, and hospitality. These scheduling systems are linked to high worker dissatisfaction and turnover. Lowe’s is one of few retail firms that are going to a four-day workweek, and there is as yet no data on whether the move will improve employee job satisfaction and turnover.
More Than a Buzzword — Short Workweeks Change How We Work
Just as the 40-hour workweek revolutionized the history of work, experts believe that the four-day workweek is poised to be the next big thing. There’s nothing magical about the 40-hour workweek, and studies show that there are no productivity benefits to the five-day workweek.
While data is still coming in, a shorter workweek has been shown to improve employee mental health, focus, and job satisfaction. The good news is that companies can identify the structure that works for their employees. There’s no single solution. Ultimately, it’s that kind of flexibility that employees can get behind.
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