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Why 2023 Could Finally Be the Year of the 4-Day Workweek

12 minute read

Towards the end of 2022, headlines began popping up trumpeting the arrival, at long last, of a new way of working. Business Insider’s, for example, read: “New Research May Have Just Paved the Way for the 4-Day Week.” The research in question was the first large-scale, independent pilot programs to test the impact of reducing the workweek to roughly 32 hours, without any reduction in pay.

Conducted by the non-profit organization 4 Day Week Global (4WDG), the two pilots were based on six-month trials that included 33 companies and a total of 903 employees, primarily in the U.S. and Ireland. They confirmed a thesis that has been gathering steam for a while: a shorter work week is better for both employees and employers.

“We knew the results were going to be good,” says Charlotte Lockhart, co-founder of 4DWG. “The only thing that surprised us is that they were so good.” By almost every measure both employers and employees overwhelmingly judged the new schedule a success.

Upon thinking a little further, Lockhard recalled another surprise: “The statistic around how much you would have to pay people to go back to the old ways,” she said, referring to the nearly 42% who would need a 25-50% salary increase to return to a five-day work week. “And then there were the people who said they wouldn’t do it for any amount—’you just couldn’t pay me enough.’”

In February, 4 Day Week Global will release the results of an even bigger trial that was conducted last year in the United Kingdom. And independent of its pilots, hundreds of other companies and even governments are experimenting with and adopting the new schedule on their own.

Will 2023 be the year in which the 4-day work week becomes a reality? Here are reasons why some think it may:

The timing is finally right

The five-day week that most of us take as natural is actually less than 100 years old. Although British factories began in the late 19th century to tack a half day on Saturday to their workers’ day of rest on Sunday, the full two-day weekend as we know it was first adopted by an American mill in 1908, and didn’t become standard in the United States until the Great Depression.

Since then, a handful of countries and companies have made the work week shorter still. Although its legal requirement is 37 hours, Denmark’s average weekly total, for example, fell below 34 hours by 2002, and remains there to this day. But resistance to a more widespread transformation has long been the norm. “I published my first book on this in 1997,” says Boston College economist and sociologist Juliet Schor, who leads the research for 4 Day Week Global, “but back then was unable to find any companies willing to reduce their staff’s workload.” That began to change several years ago when a handful of companies began experimenting. “But nothing like what is happening now” Schor says. “Now, it’s actually a real thing.”

Chalk one up for the pandemic. Under lockdown, stress levels and burnout skyrocketed among workers struggling to keep up with their jobs while balancing the increased demands of domestic life, and helped fuel both frustration at workplace inefficiencies, and, in some sectors, mass resignations.

At the same time, many employers got firsthand evidence that their staff would keep up with work even when their work patterns changed. “The shift to remote work changed the way many employers started to think about scheduling,” says Schor, noting that the CEO of Healthwise, a Boise, Idaho healthcare company, told her the experience taught him he could trust his employees. And he wasn’t the only one.

“I think it was a real revelation to a lot of management that letting people work from home didn’t mean they wouldn’t work,” she says.

Bailey Weeks works from his office desk at Charlie Hustle headquarters on Tuesday, Sep. 6, 2022, in Kansas City. The company instituted a four-day work week for all salaried employees in its main office.Emily Curiel—The Kansas City Star/Tribune News Service/Getty Images

It’s undeniably good for employees

For most of her career, Julieanne Cotter worked a normal five-day-per-week schedule. But earlier this year, she took a job as a manager with Rent a Recruiter, an Ireland-based international head-hunting company, where the Monday through Thursday work week it was trialing as part of 4 Day Week’s pilot was a major draw. She uses every Friday to care for both elderly relatives and for herself. “Maybe I’ll just spend some time outside in the park,” she says. “In terms of your mental health it can just be huge. It completely re-energizes you.”

Individual experiments around the globe—more than 30 companies in the U.S. have tried it—have long found that a four-day week makes workers happier. But the new report goes into more depth on exactly how. Job satisfaction was higher for over 45% of participants and 60% said it improved work-life balance. Although 16.7% of people said that having to fit work into a tighter schedule had increased their stress levels, nearly double that amount, at 32.4%, said their stress levels had gone down over the trial period. “There’s a higher energy level going in,” says Cotter. “Knowing that you’re not going in on Monday morning and not coming out until 6 or 7 in the evening on Friday—it just feels different.”

Part of the improvement has to do with how workers used their third day off. Like Cotter, many take advantage of it to spend time with their families; the percentage of participants who said they wish they had more time for childcare was nearly halved over the course of the study. Others used it for leisure activities and personal time, factors that, in the pilots, helped boost participants’ frequency of duration of exercise and decrease their fatigue and even insomnia.

Since joining Calibre Analytics, a tech company based in Melbourne, Australia, earlier this year, software engineer Colby Swandale uses his third day off, he says, ”generally as a self-care day. I focus on my mental health and do activities like cycling, walks, and gym sessions.” And because Calibre adds its extra free day to the end of the weekend instead of the beginning (it operates on a Tuesday-Friday schedule), it has managed to banish the dreaded “Sunday Scaries.”

“I look forward to starting work each week,” Swandale says.

The one thing that workers didn’t use that extra day for? More work. “That was the biggest surprise,” says economist Schor about 2022 pilots, which overlapped with a period of spiraling inflation and the cost of living crisis. “No one used it to get a second job.”

It’s good for business

It doesn’t come as a shock that workers prefer an extra day off, and a shorter work week can be a powerful factor for attracting talent. That was the case for Swandale, who interviewed at several prominent tech firms before choosing Calibre. “The four-day week ultimately determined my decision to join the company,” he says.

At Rent a Recruiter, Cotter’s boss Barry Prost has found that the new schedule gives companies “a competitive advantage” when it comes to attracting talent. But the benefits for business don’t stop there. Among the reporting countries in the 4 Day Week study, revenues rose an average of 8.14% and increased a whopping 37.55% in comparison with the same period the previous year.

Since Search Intelligence Ltd, a digital PR company based outside Oxford, England, made its switch to a four-day week in May 2022 (it was not part of the pilot), productivity has “gone through the roof,” says owner and managing director Fery Kaszoni. Junior staffers at the company are expected to have three successful PR campaigns per month but before the switch often struggled to meet those targets. “Since May, every single person has hit their KPIs,” says Kaszoni. “Productivity has increased 25 or 30%.”

How? Improved efficiency is the main factor. Search Intelligence Ltd developed new software that streamlined internal processes, but the biggest gains came by cutting down on meetings. “We don’t do long meetings anymore,” Kaszoni says. “We used to have the onboarding Zoom meeting where 10 people from our team would meet the client and just sit there and listen for an hour. Now, we send them an email, and say, ‘these are the questions, please answer them.’ We’ve cut down massively on unnecessary things and it’s just been brilliant.”

Post-Pandemic Return To Work: Heavy Traffic Volume Rebounds In The DC Area
Commuters drive toward the District as heavy rush hour traffic rebounds from the pandemic on September 16, 2022, in Vienna, VA.Jahi Chikwendiu—The Washington Post/Getty Images

It’s probably good for the planet

Because there are so many variables, the exact impact of a four-day week on a business’ carbon footprint is difficult to measure. Many businesses have their energy use built into their office rent, so consumption is difficult to track and any offset there would need to be compared with any potential increase at workers’ homes. “I think the next step,” says Schor in reference to future studies, “is to see if people will upload their actual energy bills so we can look at the usage, and make seasonal adjustments.”

But one place where emissions seemed clearly reduced is in transportation. In the 4DWG study, commuting was somewhat reduced; the average time spent per week fell by nearly an hour. Cumulatively, that could mean big change. By lopping off a day of commuting, one British study found the U.K. would reduce car travel by 691 million miles per week.

Other studies have indicated that curbing work hours in high-income countries may result in lower consumption in general, which, in turn, reduces the carbon footprint. Another study in which Schor was involved found, for example, that a 10% reduction in hours equaled an 8.6% decline in the carbon footprint. “We don’t have a definitive finding yet,” Schor says now. “We just have some pieces of evidence that point in a good direction.”

Governments are paying attention

From 2015-2019, Iceland ran trials that reduced the workweek from 40 hours to 35 or 36 without a reduction in pay for 2,500 workers—or just over 1% of the country’s workforce. So successful was the experiment that once the results were published, unions began advocating for more widespread adoption, and by 2021, 86% of the country’s workers had either reduced their work week or had the right to do so.

Since then, other governments of various sizes have undertaken variations on the same switch. In 2019 the tiny municipality of Odsherred in Denmark switched its 300 public employees to a Monday-Thursday schedule (although without reducing their total hours overall), and in 2022, the UAE cut their work week for public employees to 4.5 days. In 2021 Spain announced the launch of a national trial and set aside 50 million euros to fund it, then began gradually rolling out the program in 2022. And in the spring of this year, Valencia—the country’s third-largest city—will roll out a creative, low-barrier-to-entry test of the four-day work week when it switches a holiday normally held in March to April, a month that, thanks to Easter and local festivities, already had three Fridays off.

But it’s true that efforts to shift to a four-day week through legislation have thus far run into obstacles that have diluted or blocked them. In May 2022, a bill before the California state legislature requiring companies with more than 500 employees to pay overtime after 32 hours a week stalled and has not been taken up again since. And while a reform that guarantees the right of employees to request a four-day schedule came into effect in Belgium in November 2022, that measure only compresses the work week rather than reducing it (employees must still work the same number of total hours as before).

“There was quite a big debate in Belgium in favor of a working time reduction, mostly among the trade unions and the feminist movement,” says Stan de Spiegelaere, a professor at Ghent University and director of policy for the union UNI Europa. “Now, it’s been buried. The political parties can say, ’we’ve done something—we made the four-day week possible.’ But this is not the four-day week we wanted.”

Prime Minister Alexander De Croo and the Vivaldi coalition agreed to a labour deal which includes a four-day work week.Noe Zimmer/Belga Mag—AFP/Getty ImagesBelgium

There’s no going back

But even without broader legislation encouraging them to make the switch, the number of both companies and governments eager to try a four-day work week is growing. 4DWG is launching new pilot programs quarterly around the world in the coming year.

“The conversations are happening at a much greater speed,” says 4DWG’s Lockhart. “And the idea is no longer as unfamiliar as it used to be. I expect that by the end of 2023, it will be considered mainstream.”

If that’s true, it’s in large part because of how popular the change has been for the entities that try it. Of the companies in 4DWG’s 2022 trials, a full 93% said they would either definitely continue with the four-day week or were planning to, though they had not made a final decision.

That fits with Julieanne Cutter’s perspective. Now that the trial is over, her employer, Rent a Recruiter, is continuing with its four-day week, and she suspects it won’t be long before society as a whole makes the change.

“There are so many benefits, from companies trying to stay competitive in terms of acquiring talent, to employees having better mental health, that I think it’s inevitable,” she says. “I think it’s coming.”

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