Productivity

Is the Four-Day Workweek a Fad or the Future?

happy workers in an office

Few employees would object to working less, but would a four-day workweek work for your company?

A shorter workweek has long been assumed to be the future of employment, as technology, with its increased efficiencies, seemed to hold the promise of more leisure time without sacrificing productivity. But, two decades into the 21st century, the concept hasn’t yet made a significant impact on the corporate world.

However, there are signs of change on the horizon, as more companies take on the framework of the four-day workweek and share the results.  

Origins of the 9 to 5

The 40-hour workweek, based on an eight-hour day, five days a week, became the standard for industrialized countries after Henry Ford adopted it for the Ford Motor Company in 1926. Ford’s innovative schedule gave workers an additional day off, ushering in the Monday-to-Friday workweek.

Henry Ford didn’t invent the concept though, he was responding to a workforce that had been advocating for an eight-hour workday since the 1860s. While he did have employee wellbeing in mind, he also knew that having an extra day to shop boded well for the economy. Ford was bolstered by his own private research, that showed that workers were just as productive in five days as six.

Today, Henry Ford might be considering an even shorter workweek if he still ran his company. Many companies are considering different models of the workday structure, spurred by contemporary research into the nature of human productivity.

The Productivity Limit

In 2016, a survey of 1,989 UK office workers found that during an eight-hour day, the average worker is productive for two hours and 53 minutes. The rest of the day, workers reported, is taken up with eating, reading, social media, and looking for another job. That’s not good news for employers.

busy worker multitaskingA global survey of 3,000 employees across eight nations, conducted by Workforce Institute, found that 78 percent of the respondents thought they could do their job in seven hours or less, if they could work without interruptions. Forty-five percent said five hours would be enough. Just imagine, if your meetings were more productive or if you never felt burnt out, how much more each minute of your day would be worth.  

A five-hour workday might not be in the cards any time soon, but these surveys lend credence to the theory that a long workday may be detrimental to productivity. The theory is further supported by a study that suggests even without distractions, the average individual’s  attention span tends to break down after 20 minutes. Other research conducted by K. Anders Ericsson, an internationally recognized researcher into the psychology behind expertise and human performance, shows that people can commit to four or five hours of concentrated work at a time – still far short of the standard workday.

The Science of Expertise

The idea that practice makes perfect, and therefore time is the simple key to success is drilled into us from a young age. However, research shows that becoming an expert at what you do isn’t just a matter of putting in the hours. Practice alone doesn’t create expertise, according to Ericsson – deliberate practice does. Deliberate practice refers to two aspects of skills development, that is, honing the skills you have and extending the range of those skills by cultivating new ones. 

Both elements require intense levels of concentration and as Ericsson’s research shows, that can only be sustained for a few hours at a time. Pushing people past the limits of normal concentration levels, he cautions, risks enabling bad habits that can spill over into normally productive time. Cultivating expertise in the workforce therefore may require a more strategic use of working hours. 

Putting Theory to the Test

With these research results in mind, Andrew Barnes, the founder of Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand firm that manages trusts, wills, and estates, embarked on an experiment with a shorter workweek for a trial period in March and April, 2018. The company’s 240 employees worked four days a week, with two researchers on hand from the University of Auckland and Auckland University of Technology to monitor the effects on staff.

consultingResults of the trial reported that employees were 20 percent more productive over the four-day week than five, with employees showing improved work-life balance by 24 percent, allowing them to spend more time with family, exercising, and cooking. Stress levels decreased by seven percent.

Team engagement increased at an average of 20 percent, while employees devised practices aimed at improving productivity, such as limiting meeting to 30 minutes. Andrew Barnes noted electricity bills were lower as well, which suggests wider implications for energy savings if the four-day workweek becomes more widely adopted.

In all, the results were encouraging enough — with Barnes seeing “no downside” — for Perpetual Guardian to make the four-day workweek a permanent option for employees.

Other companies have since hopped aboard the four-day week trend, with similar positive outcomes from trial periods. Microsoft Japan, for example, tried a 32-hour week in August, 2019, allowing 2,200 workers to have Fridays off, and subsequently reporting that not only did productivity increase by 40 percent, the company also saved on energy costs, probably due simply to having the office closed with lights and computers off an additional day. Time efficiencies were found with shorter meetings and less time on email. However, Microsoft Japan still hasn’t committed to bringing in the four-day week permanently.

Shake Shack, a gourmet burger and milkshake chain, is testing the four-day week in some of the Las Vegas outlets, as part of a concerted effort to recruit and retain staff in the challenging hospitality sector.

Right Company, Right Time

The four-day week might not be for everyone. Some industries need to have a presence over longer hours, even 24 hours, seven days a week, making reduced hours impractical. Some jobs just take more time and that could mean that a shorter workweek could raise overtime costs. This is just one example of how a shorter workweek can raise costs depending on the industry. In Sweden, a two-year trial at select locations in Gothenburg became too costly, even though worker satisfaction was higher.

While Henry Ford introduced the five-day workweek in 1926, it took more than a decade longer to become the labor standard. Entrepreneur and founder of 4-Day Week US, Jon Steinman, believes a similar society-wide adoption will be necessary to achieve the full benefits of reduced hours.

Moving Forward

For those companies that are ready to try out the four-day week, Perpetual Guardian offers several  recommendations, including:

  •   Begin with a trial period and engage outside consultants/academics to evaluate qualitative and quantitative measures of success.
  •   Test drive the schedule when work flow slows down – Microsoft Japan waited for the summer season.
  •   Establish clear business goals and objectives on both personal and team levels.
  •   Allow your employees some time to consider different ways of working that improve productivity.

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