Is the ‘Four Day Work Week’ Set to Become a Reality Worldwide?
The traditional Monday to Friday 40 hour week has been the default working pattern for decades, but as we enter a new era of work-life balance, the four day work week is gaining traction around the world.
This revolutionary shift has been fuelled by studies that show how overworking leads to burnout, decreased productivity, and poor mental health – while, on the contrary, shorter working weeks lead to greater productivity and other positive outcomes.
In this article, we’ll explore the origins of the four-day work week and discover why it’s gaining momentum as a new standard for the modern workforce.
Benefits of the Four-Day Workweek
The benefits of a shorter workweek are numerous, for both employees and employers. They include the following:
- Improved work-life balance: Having an extra day off each week allows employees to have more time for personal activities, leisure, family commitments, pursuing hobbies, and taking much-needed rest. This leads to reduced stress and better overall well-being.
- Increased employee satisfaction and engagement: Offering a four day workweek can boost employee morale, satisfaction, and motivation. Employees appreciate having more control over their time and being able to enjoy the benefits mentioned above. This, in turn, can improve retention, loyalty, and engagement levels.
- Enhanced productivity: While it might seem counterintuitive, a shorter work week has the potential to increase productivity. Research and various pilot projects have shown that employees often experience a heightened sense of urgency and focus when they have fewer work days available and, as a result, they may become more efficient, prioritize tasks effectively, and experience improved concentration levels. (Click to read more about boosting retail productivity.)
- Reduced absenteeism and burnout: A well-rested and rejuvenated workforce is less likely to experience exhaustion or seek additional time off for personal reasons. This can lead to lower absenteeism rates and decreased occurrences of stress-related burnout.
- Attraction and retention of talent: Implementing a four-day work week can serve as an attractive perk for potential job candidates and is a key differentiator in a competitive job market. It can also improve employee retention rates, as staff are more likely to stay with an employer that values their well-being.
- Increased sustainability: A four-day workweek means less energy and water consumption, and less waste generation. In addition, commuting is a significant contributor to CO2 emissions and air pollution; with fewer commuting days, there would be reduced use of public transport and less traffic congestion, leading to lower emissions from cars and a decrease in fuel consumption.
History and Evolution of the Four-Day Work Week
The 40 hour, 5-day work week was not always the norm. Going further back, working more than 60 hours each week was the standard and various social movements fought to change that across the world.
Some milestones that have brought us to where we are today are as follows:
- The early 20th century: The concept of shorter work hours gained traction during the labour movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Workers in the US began advocating for an eight-hour workday, with the slogan “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will”; a similar sentiment was demonstrated in Europe. While the focus was on reducing daily working hours, this movement laid the foundation for later discussions on shorter workweeks.
- The ILO: In 1919, the International Labour Organization (ILO) was founded, with the objective of promoting social justice and improving working conditions worldwide. The ILO advocated for the eight-hour workday and led to international agreements and conventions supporting shorter workweeks.
- Henry Ford’s observations: In the 1920s, Henry Ford discovered that reducing the work week from 60+ to 40 hours gave rise to greater productivity. Observations like this from influential businesses and public figures, along with the work of activists, helped usher in more reasonable work schedules.
- The Kellogg’s six-hour day experiment: In 1930, the cereal manufacturer began a six-hour workday experiment. The results were positive, including increased productivity and reduced turnover, but it was eventually abandoned which was allegedly due to opposition from management, among other factors.
- The Great Depression: During the 1930s, the Great Depression led to high unemployment rates, which sparked interest in alternative work arrangements. Some suggested reducing the workweek to distribute available work among more people and alleviate the unemployment crisis. In 1933, the US Senate passed a bill for a 30 hour work week, which was later abandoned.
- The late 20th century: This period also saw renewed efforts in Europe to address work hours and improve work-life balance with some countries, like France and Germany, implementing legal reforms that gradually reduced the standard work week. Eventually, France introduced the 35-hour work week in 1998.
- The Netherlands’ part-time law: The Netherlands has been a pioneer in advocating for reduced work hours. In the 1980s, the Dutch government introduced the “Part-Time Law,” which aimed to create more job opportunities by encouraging employees to work fewer hours. The law provided financial incentives to both employers and employees, promoting a better work-life balance. As a result, part-time work became more common in the Netherlands, and the country has one of the highest rates of part-time employment in the world.
Developments Worldwide and Case Studies
In recent years, the idea of shortening the work week has gained renewed attention around the world. One influence has been the COVID-19 pandemic, which significantly disrupted traditional work patterns and accelerated the adoption of flexible arrangements. As people had to work from home during lockdowns, managers saw that employees could be trusted to perform well despite the changes.
Combined with research from the non-profit organization 4 Day Week Global (4DWG) and other pilot projects, there is a strong case for implementing this new approach.
The Perpetual Guardian Trial, New Zealand
4DWG was behind the influential Perpetual Guardian trial. In 2018, this New Zealand-based company had employees work four days a week while being paid for five. The experiment resulted in a 20% increase in productivity, higher employee satisfaction, and improved work-life balance. As a result, the company made the four day work week permanent.
Microsoft Japan also implemented a four-day workweek in the summer of 2019. The company reported a 40% increase in productivity, as well as a 23% reduction in electricity costs and a 59% reduction in paper consumption. 90% of employees involved preferred the shorter week.
In Iceland, the government and trade unions conducted trials from 2015-2019 involving around 2,500 workers across various industries, reducing their work hours from 40 to 35-36 per week without any reduction in pay. The trials were an ‘overwhelming success’ and productivity remained the same or improved in the majority of cases. By 2021, 86% of the country’s workforce had the right to reduce their work week.
In March 2021, the Spanish government launched a three-year pilot project in order to study the effects of a 32-hour work week that runs over four days (with no reduction in pay). The project involves around 200 companies.
The average working week in the Netherlands already clocks in at 29 hours. There are at least 300 companies in the country offering a four day, 32-hour week as the standard (without a reduction in pay).
As of November 2022, employees in Belgium have the right to request a four day week, but employees must still work the same number of hours as before.
The United Kingdom
Many UK companies are experimenting with this approach. According to a survey by Harvard Business Review, 50% of business leaders reported increased employee satisfaction, reduced employee sickness, and cost savings of almost £92 billion per year.
Will the Four Day Work Week Catch on Globally?
The adoption of a shorter workweek depends on various factors, including cultural norms, labour laws, industry practices, and the willingness of employers and employees to embrace alternative work arrangements.
As the younger workforce enters the job market, there is a growing demand for work arrangements that prioritize flexibility and well-being. Thus, as employee expectations evolve, employers may be more inclined to consider shorter workweeks to attract and retain talent and motivate Gen Z.
The feasibility and applicability of a four-day workweek can vary across industries; knowledge-based industries may find it easier to adopt these new arrangements, while those with round-the-clock operations, such as manufacturing or customer service-oriented roles, may face more challenges.
Despite the promising results that many companies have experienced, some organizations stopped exploring the four day work week due to the complexity of managing it in their unique circumstances, as well as staffing concerns, among other factors.
While it may be a gradual shift, more and more nations are experimenting with shorter weeks and making the changes permanent. In addition, researchers have reported that employees working in such companies have said they couldn’t be paid enough to go back to working the full five day week. So, it seems that for the majority of those that have started walking this path, there is no turning back.
The four-day workweek is gaining momentum around the world as a new standard for the modern workforce. It’s not surprising considering the benefits: improved employee well-being, retention and job satisfaction; increased productivity; reduced operating costs; and various environmental benefits.
Despite the promising results in certain contexts, its widespread adoption worldwide will require further research, experimentation, and societal shifts. It will depend on the collaboration and efforts of governments, employers, employees, and other stakeholders in order to create the necessary policy frameworks, cultural acceptance, and operational adjustments.
If you’re not ready to take the plunge and reduce your organization’s work week, there is another way to boost productivity and efficiency – workforce management software. Manus Software Europe/Softbrick B.V. are the leading provider of workforce software, serving multinational organizations in Europe and beyond. Contact us today to book a demo.