A four-day week is not the answer to more flexibility.
ARTICLE | DECEMBER 6, 2022 | 5 MIN READ
The 4-day workweek is gaining traction, though it’s not for everyone
When Jon Leland, the chief strategy officer at Kickstarter, found himself at home in the early days of the pandemic with plenty of time on his hands, he threw himself into reimagining the workplace. “We knew that employees were increasingly burnt out and stressed out,” he says. “And we were thinking about how we could reinvent the way we work while still meeting the need for innovation.”
He was especially captivated by research on the four-day workweek. “There was more than enough evidence that a company like Kickstarter could maintain and even increase productivity,” he says about adopting a four-day workweek. “We want people to be very focused at work, but we also want to give them space to rest and recover outside of work. And we also want to make sure that we’re retaining employees in this job environment.”
Leland became a true believer. He reached out to 4 Day Week Global, a group advocating for the switch to a shorter work week, and started working with the organization to promote the idea in the United States. He also pushed for a compressed workweek at Kickstarter, a certified B Corp that’s in the business of helping creative people to succeed.
Last spring, the company moved to a four-day week, and after six months the pilot program continues. Most employees work Monday through Thursday, though some stagger shifts if always-on coverage is needed. The results so far? “Our employee engagement is higher than it’s ever been,” Leland says. “We’re hitting our goals better than we ever have. And our employee retention is the highest it’s ever been.”
Across the business landscape, the pandemic prompted a widespread re-evaluation of where and how people work. Employees quit their jobs and changed their jobs. They scrutinized their work-life balance. And overwhelmingly they transformed the way they work, with the most recent data from Gallup showing that 49% of employees who can do their jobs remotely are working in a hybrid format, with another 29% working fully remote. Ernst & Young’s second annual EY Future Workplace Index reports that a full 40% of employers have either already shifted to a four-day workweek or are in the process of doing so.
Percentage of employees who have remote-capable roles and work in fully remote or hybrid formats
The five-day workweek has been around in the United States since 1926, when Henry Ford reduced his six-day-a-week factory operations by a day—without reducing employee compensation. Today, a growing international movement of people like Leland and organizations like 4 Day Week Global want to lop off another day.
“We’re living at a time when an awful lot about how we work is up for grabs,” says Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, global programs and development manager at 4 Day Week Global, who just before the pandemic published Shorter: Work Better, Smarter, and Less―Here’s How. “For a lot of people that raised big questions about why we’re working, why work looks the way it does, and whether, if we can transform how we work in a matter of weeks for the pandemic, we can also transform it for ourselves, for positive reasons.”
Pang and other advocates say that removing one day of the workweek leads to lower stress and higher morale with no loss in productivity or other measures of output. In Japan, Microsoft experimented with a four-day workweek in the summer of 2019 and saw a 40 percent boost in productivity (the national government in Japan has since recommended that more companies do this).
To study the new model, 4 Day Week Global organized a large-scale trial in the United Kingdom that began earlier this year. Some 73 companies agreed to give employees an extra day off per week. In September, 41 of the participating companies completed a mid-point progress report, and all but two said productivity was the same or better. Six companies said productivity improved significantly.
For Literal Humans, a London-based digital marketing agency that participated in the trial, it has been a resounding success. “Our revenue has grown, our productivity has grown, and people are getting more economical with their time,” says Paul David Perry, the agency’s co-founder and CEO. One side benefit: Job applications are up. “We’ve had people come to us and say, ‘I’ll work for less money to have a four-day workweek.’ And we have to say, ‘No, that’s not what we’re offering!’”
For all the benefits, four-day workweeks don’t work for every company. Lindsay Tjepkema, co-founder and CEO of Casted, a B2B technology platform that helps marketers optimize audio and video content, is committed to flexibility for her staff, but she argues that the four-day workweek doesn’t deliver it. “Dictating that you get flexibility on this one day,” she says, “that’s not really flexibility.”
At Casted, employees can make their own flexible schedules, as long as they use Slack status to indicate whether they’re fully at work (green), fully off (red), or in a flex situation where they’re available if needed.
They keep their calendars rigorously up-to-date, so colleagues know when they are and are not available for meetings. There are set times when all employees must be available, and Friday is designated as a no-internal-meetings day, so employees can use the day as they need to.
Ultimately, Tjepkema says, it’s about “being really clear about expectations and goals, and what success looks like—in the role, for the day, and for the week.”
A four-day week is not the answer to more flexibility.
Others have given the four-day structure a go, and already abandoned their plans. Alter Agents, a market research firm in Los Angeles, told Marketplace about its efforts at a four-day workweek earlier this year. The company wanted the change to be invisible to clients, so it developed a system of alternating days off, to make sure someone was always available. After 10 weeks, the company surveyed its employees and found that balancing the shifting schedules had made them more stressed, not less. They’re now exploring other ways to give their employees more time to recharge.
Similarly, RedSprout Media, a content-marketing firm, switched to a four-day workweek in 2021—and then promptly found it didn’t work. Olivia Webb, RedSprout’s co-founder and marketing director, explained on LinkedIn that the model was too rigid. “We didn’t ask people if they actually wanted it,” she wrote on the site. “A four-day week is not the answer to more flexibility.” It doesn’t work for everyone, she argued, and “it means you’re still telling people how they should be doing their work.” RedSprout has developed what she considers a better model. “We now operate a work whenever, wherever policy.”
Pang, for his part, says companies need to find the right version of the four-day model that works for their business and employees. “I’m heartened by the fact that we’re seeing a wider diversity of companies, in all kinds of industries, which are making this work,” he says
But he also has a fantasy next step: “I would love to see a farsighted mayor, who maybe has his eye on the governor’s office and has good relationships with the local business community, who makes their city America’s first four-day-a-week town,” he says. If the city’s public services shifted to a four-day schedule, that would remove some of the structural and timing challenges and excuses companies have for not trying the new model. “It’s a way to build better companies and businesses,” he says, “but also building better lives for everybody.”