Several years ago, it sounded like a dream: working four days per week, yet somehow achieving the same or increased level of success as you would with five or even six days. But now, with workplace wellness and burnout prevention at the top of both employer and employees’ minds, a four-day workweek not only a reality, but a well-researched recommendation.
A high-profile U.K. study conducted by researchers at Boston College, University of Cambridge and other educational institutions, was released in February 2023, documenting nearly 3,000 participants’ results in a collaboration to determine the potential impacts of a four-day workweek. Sixty one companies participated for more than half of 2022, including a range of industries and business sizes, to determine how transitioning to a four-day week would go. Researchers determined it was a “resounding success,” and 56 of the 61 companies will be continuing the new schedule even after the study has ended. Additionally, 18 have already committed to making it a permanent change.
The key finding, in a world where workplace burnout is becoming a top concern, was that employees’ well-being improved. An astonishing “71% had reduced levels of burnout at the end of the trial.” In addition, “39% of employees were less stressed,” and employees reported better sleep, less anxiety and improved overall physical and mental health. More than half were finally able to improve that elusive work-life balance we all strive for, noting they could better handle household responsibilities as a career person. However, none of this came at the cost of the companies’ bottom lines—compared to a similar time period in previous years, companies reported an average of 35% increased
Here’s what employers and employees should consider when they look into the four-day workweek for their own company.
Using the transition to create an individualized approach
The study didn’t impose a one-size-fits-all approach on the company participants, for good reason. Each company has to tailor and invent solutions to their specific situation and challenges to make it work permanently. Exos’ chief performance innovation officer, Amanda Carlson-Phillips, assisted in developing the “Readiness Culture Code,” a blueprint that advises corporate cultures on how to think about implementing a four-day week. Exos is starting this schedule themselves in May as part of a research pilot program, alongside other researchers from Wharton School of Business.
It’s not about experiencing quick relief with a speedy transition to a four-day workweek. Instead, Carlson-Phillips explains that the transition itself is an opportunity.
“For athletes, you want to prevent overtraining and create a strategy so that they are ready for their most important competition or when game day comes. In corporate America, the parallel to an athlete overtraining is an employee burning out,” she says. “This is a time to pause and rethink how we can help employees think of their daily, weekly, quarterly and yearly approach to their work with respect to load management. In short, making sure they have the capacity to handle what’s coming at them.”
She explains the goals of the four-day workweek are to increase capacity, oscillate the load and help employees create more sustained high performance.
Advice from some prepandemic 4-day workweek pioneers
Salon co-owners Kenna Ehman and Lauren Kunijo tried the four-day workweek at their Charlotte, North Carolina-based business Kenna Kunijo long before it was a pandemic-inspired trend. They knew that if they didn’t do something to adapt to changing employee needs, they’d risk “losing all their employees,” Ehman says. “We have to change, or we won’t survive. Employees thrive in their work environment when they can separate their work from their life and knock out their tasks in fewer days.”
So, in 2019, they transitioned by offering an option of a four-day workweek with one long shift and three six-hour days, or a typical five-day workweek with hours consistently spread over five days. “The staff unanimously chose the four-day workweek. Their rationale was simple: more days off, vacations, adventures or sleep/rest days,” Kunijo says.
To do it successfully, they had to break some beauty industry norms—their clients don’t always get the exact same stylist each time, but there is always someone available.
“To take a three-day weekend without dipping into any vacation days is absolutely unheard of in the beauty industry. Additionally, stylists aren’t taking a financial hit in their paychecks to have a three-day weekend three times a month and a four-day weekend once a month,” Kunijo says.
Employers wanting to pilot this schedule might need to consider what norms they could—and should—break, for what these co-owners call a “threefold” boost in employee happiness and morale.
Considering the logistics before jumping in
It’s not the employees who will shoulder the burden of coordinating potentially more complex schedules. “The barrier was more on our end, navigating the schedules and playing Tetris to make it work, but we knew it would,” Kunijo says.
Aaron Metzger, founder of Genius Digital Marketing in Colleyville, Texas, oversees a team of 10 employees who are in the process of slowly transitioning to a four-day workweek. “I’ve been reading a lot about it and technology allows us to work faster than ever, and I truly believe a 40-hour workweek is outdated,” Metzger explains. The marketing agency’s transition started in January 2023, with just one additional Friday off, before moving to two Fridays off.
“Well, honestly our team could handle switching faster (and I’m sure they’re wanting to), but for our purposes we needed to adjust how we operate. Friday is usually the day we send out status update emails, leave open for last-minute meetings and use it as a catch-all for lingering projects,” he says. “So we’re working to condense that process into a shorter workweek. But I think, more importantly, we’re shifting gradually because the U.S. workplace culture isn’t ready for it.”
Watching the data for signs of benefits
While the U.K. four-day workweek pilot study produced immense and measurable benefits for the 61 participating companies, other companies tentatively dipping a toe into the alternate schedule might want to keep an eye out for data and feedback as well. For example, Metzger actively asks his employees, in these early days, about how they are using their extra day off.
“One of our team members said ‘I took my son to the dentist’ and I was thinking that was kind of a bummer thing to do with a day off, but he followed up with ‘It is really great that I am able to do things like this during the week. I feel very fortunate to have the extra time off. Thanks so much for that,’” Metzger says. “And that’s how I really knew it was working. I see my team posting on social media hanging out with their kids, raising chickens, going out of town and just living more of their lives with their time off and that is success.”
These personal data points might be as important as the more common ones, such as monitoring time and progress on client work, another significant task in the transition. “The barriers we could potentially run into is just not having enough time to get work done and potentially letting projects slip to the next week and three days is a long time to go between checking emails,” Metzger adds. ”The technical answer would be checking our project management tools and time-tracking tools to make sure client projects are being completed and the appropriate amount of time is being spent on client projects.”
4 day workweeks—the future of work scheduling?
These business leaders are hopeful, but unsure of the future of the four-day workweek on a more widespread scale. “We hope this is not a temporary trend. The pandemic didn’t create the burnout crisis; the symptoms were bubbling up well before,” Carson-Phillips says. “With additional life stressors of a changing economy, the challenges are not going away. We simply can’t go back to the way we were working before. We need to protect ourselves and our human capital and create a corporate environment where recovery is the norm, not a luxury.”
She acknowledges that it won’t work for every company, and like most solutions, it shouldn’t be the only accommodation. “If a company is just adding a four-day workweek without a larger cultural recovery framework, we think it will fail every time.”
But if employees have the choice, a plan and the structure to make it work, Ehman says, “Trust me. They won’t go back.”
Photo by NDAB Creativity/Shutterstock
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