WHY WE EMBRACED THE FOUR DAY WORKWEEK (AND WHY YOU SHOULD TOO)
At GUHP, we’re always looking for new ways to do things; little changes we can make to enhance the fun, creative atmosphere in our office, stimulate teamwork and innovation, improve our work/life balance, and boost productivity. That devotion to continual improvement is what led us to make the bold move that’s been slowly but steadily growing in popularity over the last few years; switching to a four day workweek.
For many, the four day workweek is uncharted waters - a vague concept, with no set guidelines on how to implement it, not much widespread uptake, and enough uncertainties to give anyone a bit of reasonable doubt about taking the plunge. It’s difficult to get past the seemingly self-evident logic that fewer working days means less work completed.
Yet, in spite of these initial doubts, it remains broadly popular among employees and employers alike in workplaces where it has been introduced, and employees with regular five day workweeks are increasingly open to the idea of making that transition. Statistics don’t lie - according to a survey by Qualtrics:
92% of employees would support their employer implementing a four day working week.
88% of employees said it would improve their work/life balance.
79% of employees said it would improve their mental health.
82% of employees said it would make them more productive.
81% of employees said it would make them more loyal to the company.
92% said it would help their company to recruit more talent.
Those numbers don’t just come out in favour of a four day working week - it’s a landslide. Needless to say, employees are embracing this new and promising work model, judging the benefits to outweigh any potential risks. This increasing popularity is reflected in the gradual acceptance of the four day week by employers - especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, when flexibility and innovation was a must-have for employers looking to keep things running smoothly through numerous months of lockdown. As of 2021, 65% of employers said that they operate a four day workweek for at least some of their employees, compared to just 50% in 2019.
So, the consensus among both employers and employees seems to be that the four day workweek is a good thing. While that definitely piqued our interest, we were curious to see whether it holds up to scrutiny. Based on the available evidence, is there substance to that idea?
The short answer is yes.
Our first topic of research was productivity. The main concern employers might have with switching to a four day model is that it would impede work and cause delays and missed deadlines, ultimately reducing client satisfaction. In reality, it appears that there isn’t anything to worry about. Plenty of evidence suggests that productivity isn’t hindered by shorter working weeks - a Stanford University study, for instance, found that employees working significantly longer than average workweeks are actually less productive than those working average hours, dispelling the oversimplified idea that more hours leads to greater output.
TIME Magazine’s 2017 ranking of 35 countries by productivity points towards the same conclusion; Luxembourg, which has an average workweek of 29 hours, leads the way, followed by the likes of Norway (27.3 hours), Belgium (29.8 hours), and Denmark (27.2 hours). The 3 countries ranked as least productive were Chile (38.2 hours), Russia (38 hours), and Mexico (41.2 hours). The UK, for reference, placed around mid-table with its 31.9 hour working week. There’s a clear trend here - long workweeks lead to an overworked, underproductive workforce. In contrast, countries with shorter workweeks reap the benefits when it comes to the productivity of their workers.
If you need any more convincing, a high-profile trial study conducted in New Zealand by Perpetual Guardian found that employees switching to a four day week reported a host of benefits including increased job satisfaction, more effective teamwork, and a better work/life balance, all without any impact on overall productivity.
This underlines why the policy has been increasingly popular around the world in recent years - it’s a positive change for workers and, at the very least, doesn’t have any obvious downsides for employers. If some data is believed, it might even boost overall productivity - a win-win situation!
The benefits of a four day working week don’t end with productivity and job satisfaction, though. Some have suggested that it might be a step towards a more equal and fair workplace, with an extra day off expanding opportunities for new parents, people with chronic illnesses or disabilities, those with caring commitments, and others in similar situations to get into work. This especially affects women - of the 2,000,000 people in the United Kingdom currently unable to enter work due to childcare commitments, almost 90% are women. Adopting the four day working week on a national scale could be the key to helping them into employment.
That’s not all - there’s an environmental benefit too. Depending on the way the four day workweek is implemented, it might be possible to leave entire office buildings unused on a given day of the week. One day might not seem so significant at first, but when you consider the energy-saving potential of an entire day with no need for lighting, air conditioning, equipment such as computers or photocopiers, and even commuting, you’ll realise that it adds up to a significant reduction in a business’s long-term carbon footprint. In a world increasingly threatened by climate change, and where businesses are under significant pressure to reach sustainability targets, a shorter workweek can be a fantastic way to make strides towards a greener workplace.
In Utah, for example, a state government trial of the four day workweek was carried out back in 2007. The results were staggering; within ten months, over 6,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide were thought to have been shaved off of the state’s emissions just from employees having Fridays off. If reduced emissions from commutes were included, that figure would rise to 12,000 metric tons per year - that’s the equivalent of taking over 2,000 cars off the road - and all the while saving millions of dollars in energy costs.
You might be thinking that with advantages for productivity, mental wellbeing, company loyalty, work/life balance, and sustainability, it’s a mystery why there are still employers standing by the traditional five day workweek. As with most things, it’s not that simple; there are still barriers in place that make the changeover difficult, or even impossible, for some employers and industries.
For an example, look no further than the very same Utah study previously mentioned. Giving government employees Fridays off might have been a cost-saving and environmentally-friendly move, but it didn’t prove particularly popular amongst the general public and was discontinued a few years later as a result. Why? Because, while Friday was essentially part of the weekend for state employees, that wasn’t the case for the majority of people, leading to widespread confusion and frustration over the fact that public services were no longer available on a weekday. With complaints rolling in, the state had little choice but to revert back to the five day system that the public were familiar and comfortable with, regardless of the benefits the four day system had offered.
Another common issue is employers misunderstanding the best way to implement a four day week. The trick is that removing a day from the weekly schedule doesn’t mean the missing hours should be crammed into the other four days - as previously mentioned, overworked employees are less satisfied, less healthy, and less productive. It might not be intuitive, but those extra hours aren’t needed - and attempting to compress the same number of hours into four days instead of five will only sabotage your chances of the transition being successful.
Even disregarding all that, the four day workweek isn’t suitable for all workplaces and industries. Some companies simply don’t have the infrastructure to manage a sweeping change. Think about the healthcare industry, for example; in the UK, the NHS is already swamped with a constant battle against staff shortages, so a four day working week would lead to even more difficulty covering shifts, even longer waiting times, and a generally less efficient healthcare system. It’s safe to say that larger reforms are required before the health industry can even remotely consider taking that step.
By and large, these are relatively minor obstacles rather than nails in the coffin. The rise of AI chatbots and machine learning, for instance, could alleviate the issue of services not being available on Fridays by providing alternative resources for customers to access. As more and more companies take on the four day week, awareness will likely continue to grow until employers are sufficiently comfortable and well-informed to make sure the transition is carried out properly.
The GUHP team is only in the early days of our four day model, but we’ve already been seeing the benefits. Our three day weekend provides a refreshing break, giving us the energy and motivation we need to do our best work when we’re back at our desks. Having a guaranteed day off on a weekday allows us to make plans in advance for errands and appointments that aren’t possible at the weekend. We also have plenty of opportunities to develop hobbies and spend quality time with family and friends. These are just the initial benefits we’ve noticed - for all we know, even more await us in the long term.
We believe that the secret to a successful business is adaptability - always having a willingness to recognise when things can be done better. The four day workweek is a shining example of that. Since making the switch, we’ve been delighted by the results and haven’t looked back.