The four-day workweek is in the news again, with new results from a six-month trial led by nonprofit organization 4 Day Week Global revealing positive effects for engagement, productivity, and work-life balance. With mounting evidence in favor of a four-day workweek, an increasing number of employees and leaders are seeking to understand how to make a shortened workweek work at their organizations.
To learn more about how companies in the trial made four-day workweeks work, we reached out to the lead researcher for the 4 Day Week Global trial, Boston College economist and sociologist Juliet Schor. Here’s an excerpt of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.
Over the past couple of years, momentum for the four-day workweek has been building globally. Why do you think interest and excitement in a shorter workweek has spiked recently?
One factor has to do with the pandemic, which created a lot of stress, anxiety, burnout, and time pressure for employees. It gave people the sense that their working time and their work stress were too high. One result of that dynamic is the so-called great resignation, and the four-day workweek emerged in part to forestall or respond to resignations. One of the first companies in our trial had a slew of resignations in January 2021, and they decided to try a four-day week that same year.
Second, the four-day workweek has also been a way for companies to attract talent. Many companies and nonprofits have positions sitting open because they can’t attract applicants. This is particularly true for nonprofits, where wages aren’t typically as high as in the private sector.
Third, work from home really opened employers’ eyes to the fact that they could do things differently. Finally, the pandemic crystallized for people the idea that two days is not enough to be off work, particularly for those with household responsibilities. They just don’t get enough of a break—and they need the break.
What did the results from the first trial reveal about the four-day workweek?
We have survey results from 27 of the 33 companies that completed the trial. We asked them all to rate the trial from zero to 10 on overall satisfaction, productivity, and performance. We also asked whether they plan to continue the four-day workweek policy. The overall rating was a nine, and they rated productivity as a 7.7 and performance as 7.6. Some 18 companies have already decided they’re making the policy permanent. Seven are planning to, but they just haven’t finalized the decision yet because many of them need to go to their boards.One is leaning toward, and one is undecided. So none of them are leaning against or definitely not continuing. So they’re very happy.
For the other metrics, the revenue comparison to last year was a 38% increase in revenue, and during the trial revenue went up 8%. Of course, this is all coming out of the pandemic, and many of these are growing companies.
In terms of retention and engagement, absenteeism went down on average. The average number of six and personal days per employee per month went from 0.56 days to 0.39 days— a 30% decrease. The new hire rate went up, the resignation rate went down, and the total number of employees went up. In short, they’re hiring people, fewer people are resigning, fewer people are taking sick time.
On the employee side, we’re also seeing extremely positive results. We found that people’s wellbeing went up quite a lot: their work stress went down, their burnout rates went down, their job satisfaction went up, their physical health went up, and their mental health went up. Another interesting thing is at the beginning of the trial, we asked them to rate their current work ability compared to their lifetime best as a measure of self-rated productivity, and that went up significantly. People felt at the end of the trial that they were more productive, they just were performing significantly better.
And then we asked, ‘Do you want to continue the trial?’ Some 97% said yes. We then asked how much they valued a four-day week by asking them how much more money they would require to work a five-day week at their next job. Some 42% said they’d require between 26% and 50% more pay,13% said they’d require more than 50% more pay, and 13% said no amount of money could make them go back to how things were before.
4 Day Week Global runs trials with a 100-80-100 model, meaning that employees do 100% of their current work in 80% of the time with 100% of their previous pay. What tactics did companies use to maintain productivity while reducing the number of hours worked?
The most obvious thing that a lot of companies looked at is their meeting culture because meetings have gone out of control, particularly in white collar workplaces. They’re too long. There are too many of them. Too many people go to them. They’re too inefficient. And then there’s that famous phrase: ‘That meeting could have been an email.’ To cut down on working time, companies doubled down on meeting culture.
A second area is distractions. People can get a lot more work done if they are less distracted, They can get into flow, and they can complete tasks that require serious thought much more easily. One company in our UK trial has an open-plan office, and they put in a lighting system with red, yellow, and green lights. If it’s green light, it means, ‘Feel free to come and talk to me.’ If it’s a yellow light, it means, ‘You can come, but it better be something very important.’ And a red light is, ‘Don’t you dare approach my desk. I’m busy.’ Another way companies have cut down on distractions is by picking certain times of day when everybody’s doing their own work, and they’re not supposed to be bothering others, or they designate certain times as no-meetings blocks.
We’ve also heard from people who have changed communication styles to shift to more efficient communication. For example, one person I interviewed said she doesn’t call people as much anymore because when you call, you have to chitchat with them. Instead, she’ll just Slack or email them.
Those are all examples of what you might call efficiency tricks, but some companies go through a much more deep-seated process in which they look at everything they’re doing and figure out what’s valuable and what isn’t. When we presented the results, one CEO told us that they’ve had a very good experience, but it’s really been less about the time and the number of days in the office than about the fact that they took this opportunity to totally rethink how they were doing things. Quite a few companies talk about that—the opportunity to look anew at how they spend their time and priorities and figuring out what’s creating value for the organization.